Social Media: Are you building a tribe or are you using your followers?

A tribe is a group of people connected to one another, connected to a leader, and connected to an idea. For millions of years, human beings have been part of one tribe or another. A group needs only two things to be a tribe: a shared interest and a way to communicate.

Seth Godin

Permission Relationships

Social media is based on Permission Relationships – someone trusts you (your taste, your relevance in their life) to curate content for them. Facebook, Twitter, Instagram – your followers trust that what you post will be of value to them. What you could be doing with that relationship is engaging in a dialogue, earning more permissions, building a tribe that cares, and creating an arena where your input is welcomed.

Facebook, Instagram, Twitter – all based on permission relationships.

On Favors

A favor is the first half of a transaction that benefits someone without making anyone else worse off.  To complete the transaction you return this favor as soon as you can. This transaction is spread out over a long spread of time and many people so that all society feels the benefit. These transactions are of such worth that it’s part of an unspoken Social Contract: it’s not just selfish to withhold this transaction – it’s rude. There could be a social backlash for noncompliance

You hold open the elevator door. Borrow milk from a roommate  Recommend someone for a job.

This pattern scales really well: there’s Mass Symmetric Favors like Halloween or school taxes. Someone did it for you, you do it for others, they in turn do it in the future. To opt out is uncivilized.

This transaction of favors is a part of the Social Contract. There has, traditionally, been a price for not responding to this unspoken contract – social shaming and loss of reputation. Society values this transaction, and we are conditioned to respond to these requests for favors.

Asking for favors on social media

When a resume and job plea is blasted out to followers, when friends are asked for likes on a page in order to hit a certain number, when a plea for help goes out – this is done under the guise of asking followers for a favor. But in these cases there is no reasonable expectation of that favor being returned and therefore the social contract will never be completed. This is not transacting with people – it’s using people. It’s taking. The social contract is broken.

Seth Godin calls this an Asymmetrical Mass Favor – when one person asks a large number of people for a favor that may very well never be repaid.

This favor isn’t benefiting the tribe, it’s only helping one person. It’s undoing a tacit agreement that society chooses to live by. Many times the tribe resents it. Even worse, this breaks down the social contract of favors because it makes a follower, someone who wants to be open to a favor, do the difficult thing and just say no.

Asymetrical Mass favors hurt

“Can’t hurt to ask…” “It’s only a like, I’m not asking for much…” It does hurt and the price is far higher than that. In your social media connections you’ve been trusted with the opportunity to build a tribe. Asking for something that looks like the beginning a favor – but is actually taking – forces someone who trusted you to feel like they must break the social contract.

Instead of strengthening ties with your tribe, do you really want to use a permission-based relationship to break the social contract?


See also: Seth Godin’s articles Asymmetrical mass favors, a tragedy of our commons and “All we need is 250 votes…”