What Makes Social Networks Tick?
By Neal Cole
What underlies the evolutionary success of the human race and allows social networks to function? In the book ‘I’ll have what she’s having’ by Bentley, Earls (@Herdmeister) and O’Brien, the authors’ assert that cooperation between individuals is key to both.
Research into a diverse range of group activities by Northwestern University Institute found that individual performance was a poor indicator of team success. Group results are of course determined by a combination of individual performance and how well people co-operate. This post examines how cooperation evolves in social networks.
BENEFITS OUTWEIGH THE COST:
Co-operation can flourish in complex systems such as social media and modern highly interconnected societies. For co-operation to evolve game theorist Martin Nowak identified that the benefits must outweigh the costs to the individual. It is human nature that people will not persist with a behavior that does not have a perceived return greater than the time or effort invested in the activity.
The authors’ grouped conditions that need to exist for co-operation to evolve into three categories.
1. Group Mentality:
People support others who are either biologically related (kin selection) or belong to the same group (group selection). Despite the power of kinship it is group selection that is more common in our modern societies. Humans appear naturally hardwired to cooperate as part of a group and psychological studies suggest they have more positive emotions and are more motivated when feeling part of a community. This goodwill allows for sharing, bartering, trading, lending, borrowing and many other collaborative behaviours.
Cooperation allows people to provide different skills to manufacture complex products that an individual would struggle to build, or to grow a single crop that can be exchanged for goods and services produced by other members of the group. People benefit from assisting the group because their long term interests are usually served by the group’s success. As a result more cooperative groups tend to be more successful and grow at the expense of less cooperative groups.
The system of indebtedness originating from the rule of reciprocation may be a unique characteristic of human nature. Indeed, the archaeologist Richard Leakey suggests that reciprocation is part of what makes us human:
“We are human because our ancestors learned to share their food and their skills in an honored network of obligation.” Richard Leakey
Reciprocation acts as an adaptive mechanism that facilitates the division of labor, the exchange of goods and services, and the formation of clusters of inter-dependencies that link people together into social networks. Robert Cialdini asserts that reciprocation is essential for our ability to make social advances because it provides confidence to the person who gives something to another individual that their effort will not be in vain.
Reciprocation can work where an individual looks for another person to cooperate first before they cooperate. However this form of direct reciprocation can be unreliable because the mood can quickly be destroyed by freeloaders. But it also fails to explain why someone will cooperate with people they don’t know and may never meet again.
Indirect reciprocation, where co-operation has become common, if not the norm, is a more powerful form of reciprocation. This occurs when individuals respond in kind to the reciprocal behavior of others. Twitter relies on the mechanism of reciprocation to drive the flow of information around the social network. Following other people, re-tweeting other’s posts, answering questions, and leaving comments on blogs all encourage reciprocal behavior from others.
Authority or reputation is a further enabler of indirect reciprocation. Robert Cialdini asserts that our obedience to authority allows for the evolution of complex systems for resource production, trade, defense, and social control that would otherwise not be possible. Such obedience often takes place with little or no conscious thought. Often a communication from a recognized authority is used as a behavioural shortcut that determines how we act in a certain situation. For example on Twitter people will sometimes retweet a link before reading the post because of the reputation of the source.
Earls and his co-authors assert that reputation only works if a person is recognized as having legitimate authority. However, Cialdini points out that in reality just the appearance of authority can be sufficient for people to be influenced by a person or group. For instance titles are supposed to be a reflection of years of work. But it is very easy for a person to adopt just the label and receive automatic submission to their judgement. Clothes, such as a doctor’s uniform, can also trigger our mechanical compliance to authority.
In a similar way group membership and kinship use various forms of identification so that individuals know whether they belong to a group or not. This could be a surname or clan name in some societies or you may be defined by your accent or appearance. Whatever the nature of the group though copying and conforming is an essential part of belonging to a group. Because we are social creatures membership of groups often overrides our individuality and determines our place in society.
“The key to group membership, of course, is copying those around you so that when you’re in Rome you act as the Romans do, and not like someone else.” Bentley, Earls & O’Brien – I’ll Have What She’s Having.
- Social networks take many forms, from close groups of friends located within a small geographical location, to global social media networks. As a result we can use the ‘rules of the game’ as the authors’ refer to them in many different situations.
- There are huge benefits to be gained from encouraging a culture of cooperation within our diverse social networks. People are more likely to be able to achieve change when battling a bureaucracy if they cooperate than working in isolation. Similarly within organizations cooperation is essential for any change program to be successful. Conventional top down strategies will often fail because they have not got buy-in from people lower down the organizational structure. Management need to accept that they can’t force people to do things that they don’t agree with. Innovation is also more likely to result from collaboration.
- Brands and organizations in general can assist the process of cooperation by making sharing of content easy and rewarding. Facebook, Twitter and other large social media appear to provide a ready made solution for sharing. Analysis of the dynamics of Facebook communities by Emilio Ferrara discovered that there are relatively few large communities in Facebook. The vast majority are highly connected small size communities. However, members of such networks often suffer from information overload due to the number of connections each has. This reduces the chance that individual members will see and share content.
- As ‘super social’ apes humans are community-minded and benefit from being embedded within groups rather than acting in a selfish and isolated way. Research suggests that people who surround us influence and regulate our behaviour. Organizations can benefit from our social nature by engaging with people in a collaborative manner to encourage creativity and innovation. This helps build trust and is more likely to influence mass behavior than conventional marketing approaches. Indeed, Rachael Botsman suggests that trust is the currency of the new economy and is our most valuable asset.
- Organizations can encourage a culture of reciprocation by taking a genuine interest in their customers and staff. People are generally good at spotting insincere interactions, but appreciate communications that are both helpful and engaging. Offering interesting and unique content facilitates reciprocation because it is more likely to be well received when shared.
- Reputation gives authority to communications. Organizations often adopt brand values as a way of demonstrating their commitment to key customer beliefs. However, Mark Earls suggests that actions are the most powerful means of communicating behavioral change. Organizations are more likely to be successful in achieving change if they align the company’s actions with their core beliefs. This demonstrates more clearly than any marketing communication that the organization is serious about its core beliefs.