Posts Tagged ‘Social Capital


Why do we make the choices we do? Levi and Kurzban have proposed that the common tendency for people to cluster in social networks can be explained by their theory of cascading benefits (PDF). Their argument is that human beings have developed an inherent, unconscious logic which can explain why we link to the people we do in social networks. I’m on a mission to explore network theory right now on the basis I will most probably write my dissertation using it in some way. I hope posts that spew from me in the process will not seem too abstract to practitioners and I’ll try and keep them as practically applicable as I can.

Essentially ‘cascading benefits’ works like this:

  • If I behave in a way beneficial to someone else, this will in turn benefit their connections
  • I unconsciously know this, which means I am more inclined to make friends with people who are friends with my friends
  • These ‘tertiary benefits’ I receive by benefiting my connections come to me more consistently if I am part of a dense network
  • The two factors above lead to clustering in social networks

In more detail:

“The logic of network externalities can be applied to the choices associated with partner selection. In particular, if actors derive benefits when particular others benefit, then a benefit to an actor benefits those that are tied to the focal actor.

For instance, imagine a cluster where each actor has an interest in the others’ well-being. When ego benefits alter, this delivers a secondary benefit – as an externality – to all of alter’s exchange partners. Because alter’s partners – A, B, and C – all have a stake in alter’s well-being, benefiting alter also benefits A, B, and C indirectly.

This means, in turn, that to the extent that A, B, and C believe that ego is likely to benefit alter, they have a stake in the continued well-being of ego. Thus, the benefit is likely to return to ego through the shared ties, as a tertiary benefit. As social networks increase in the number of connections, the possibility for benefit cascades increases.”

But what do I do on twitter?

In lieu of scientific research to interrogate this hypothesis myself, I might reflexively consider it in relation to my own experience as I have attempted to build up a twitter following (and select suitable tweeters) around a social object (e.g. social media, female entrepreneurs, environment). Are my choices driven by this ‘logic of network externalities’ or by deliberate, unrelated qualititative assessments? This is my rough list of what I scan for when I determine whether to follow someone / follow someone back:

Good Bad
Relevant tweets Any mention of making money online / on twitter
Lots of followers Many more ‘following’ than ‘followers’
Have they retweeted a tweeter I recognise and respect recently No bio and / or picture
Have they retweeted at all recently Lots of tweeted links with no explanation as to why they are posting them
Relevant bio Sexually provocative picture (don’t usually bother to click into a profile with one of these)
Can spot people I know in their following box on the right Lots of irrelevant tweets

Whilst this is a long list and I can sometimes spend less than five seconds deciding whether to hit the ‘follow’ button, I have indeed included an element which fits the cascading benefits theory. That is, checking whether my prospective follow has a history of benefiting an existing connection of mine. I had not consciously considered  this but it makes sense to me and fits the ‘cascading benefits’ theory, that if my connection is benefiting from their retweet I will benefit by association.

twitter network picture by Nimages DR

In a vibrant virtual community members like to stay in touch – with the latest information relating to the social object they gather around – and with others. Mobile is the next step in facilitating that desire to keep up to date and build social capital. How can organisations and communities start to utilise and capitalise on the trend? The following examples illustrate the possibilities presented by the most simple of mobile technologies, SMS:

Case Studies

Mobile Tools and Services

These are examples only, it is advisable to investigate a range of options and verify relevant testimonials before embarking on any projects:

  • Text Marketer allows you to upload your database of mobile numbers and send SMS in bulk. Cost per message sent is 4.9pence or less.  You could generate revenue by finding a sponsor who is willing to pay to support the service, or use messaging to drive sales or other objectives.
  • Startup Adfonic enables advertisers and agencies to bid for advertising on mobile sites and applications. This depends on having a mobile site or application, and gives communities and websites the opportunity to find suitable advertisers for their mobile activities.
  • FrontlineSMS is free software that turns a laptop and a mobile phone into a central communications hub. Once installed, the program enables users to send and receive text messages with large groups of people through mobile phones.


I passed a milestone yesterday, building up 1,000 twitter followers for @everywomanUK. (everywoman‘s mission is to empower and inspire business owners and women in business. On twitter I focus on female entrepreneurs). To celebrate, in the spirit of the collaborative social web, I thought I’d share how I did it:



For everywoman, I don’t use twitter to say what I’m doing – I use it to inform, empower and inspire our community. Some people might want to know what I had for lunch, and that I spent half an hour waiting for a bus in the scorching heat, but most sign up to everywomanUK‘s updates to learn about business, entrepreneurship, running a business, others’ success stories.  I’m also careful what I retweet – I always follow links and read them myself to check accuracy and value before I pass them on. 

Boosting ‘the competition’ 

Sure I want people to visit the everywoman website, book for a conference or training programme and sign up for our online Network. And there may be others out there who are doing similar things – and I suppose there is a slight risk they’ll draw potential members away. But I don’t let that stop me posting links to these ‘competitors’ websites. That’s because my aim on twitter is to be useful to female entrepreneurs, and I know I can be more useful by circulating the best content on the web wherever it’s from. Ultimately, if a link I post is helpful to someone in our community, I hope they will remember that they got the tip from us, even if this doesn’t register as a ‘hit’ on our website.  


As mentioned above I don’t only post links back to our website (it’s surprising how many do this). I vary posting discussions, articles, blog posts, competitions, events etc from everywoman, and video, news, features, tips, commentary and opinion from elsewhere. Variety of content keeps people interested, and I get retweets and new followers after all sorts of updates. I am careful not to post anything too politically charged or frivolous, but the odd mention of the weather doesn’t hurt. I’m ever aware that people who log in at different times of the day won’t see me if I always tweet at 10am. I try and login throughout the day and even send the odd tweet in the evening to reach the night owls and the Americans. I also use Hootsuite to schedule tweets.

Being nice back

This may seem obvious, but there are different ways of being nice. Some people thank others for retweeting them, but when I see someone has mentioned everywoman I tend to look down that individual’s latest updates for something of interest to our followers, and retweet that. That way, everybody wins. The person who retweeted me gets more exposure, and the entire community gets a useful piece of information. I don’t reserve retweeting to super-networkers and I don’t have favourites: I only post links based on their merits.

Finding like minds

There are several accounts on twitter that offer business advice, female mentoring and networking. None do exactly what we do, but it is a safe bet a lot of the women following such tweeters will find what I’m offering interesting. It is a simple, but time-intensive task, to run through these accounts and find women to follow, in the hope they will follow me back. I have only done this a few times but it has been very effective. Of course, there is nothing to stop tweeters doing the same back with my followers – but what gives an edge is to remember you can be unfollowed at the click of a mouse so make sure the people you follow are likely to enjoy your content, or you could end up a 1,000 following, 50 followers loser. Another way of finding like minds is searching twitter for connected keywords, and even searching twitter for profiles with relevant keywords. You can do this using Google as follows: intitle:”on twitter” “bio* * entrepreneur” or search on twellow.

Listening and responding

I regularly check who has mentioned @everywomanUK (under replies) and do my best to answer any questions. If I can impress one follower with my attentiveness and helpfulness it is likely they will thank me for it, and that their followers will see the value I’m contributing. Again, if I think I can help someone by sending them to a site other than mine, I’ll do it.

Avoiding the noise

twitter followers

There are lots of tweeters who promise to make you rich on the Internet, offer you the secret to everlasting health or want to update you with their carnal desires. However nice it is to have lots of followers, I don’t follow these people back. When I look at the everywomanUK profile I want to be able to scroll down and find valuable content I can pass on. I can’t do that if I’m following lots of spammers and porn queens. When I go through my list of followers I only follow back the ones that look like they’re up our street. I do this by reading the tooltip that comes up over their name – and if this doesn’t give enough information, I click through and check out their latest tweets before I hit ‘follow’. It takes longer to build up contacts this way, as a lot of people use automatic ‘unfollow’  tools for when people don’t follow them back, but it’s worth it for the quality of the community you develop around you.

If you are new to twitter you might want to consult this twitter dictionary for the basics on following, retweeting, etc.

This is Item 1 of my 8 Critical Success Factors for Virtual Communities post.

Communities do not and cannot exist in isolation: external context will inevitably affect their inception and the nature they take. Before forming a virtual community, or helping one to grow, external context should influence the design of any software, any community guidelines and the expectations you have of members.


  • Your ecosystem
    • Yours will be one of millions of other virtual communities and overlapping information societies.  Are you trying to create another Facebook? Another iVillage? Another Digg? Another Freecycle? Why? Make sure you take a good look at the communities that your potential members are part of. Is what you’re proposing very different from what they have already? If not you may be barking up the wrong tree. With community, if a great place already exists that people are comfortable with, it will probably take the next big thing for them to move and learn to use a different tool.
      • If you can’t beat them, consider joining them. Trying to compete with an existing community may leave everyone involved with a sour taste in their mouth. An unfortunate example is Furl being eaten up by Diigo. (I still miss Furl).
      • That said, Drupal Modules is a good example of a community that started up to accusations of fracturing the community but has ended up extremely popular. Top 10 Drupal Community Sites. If you are confident your community can add value, go for it.
      • If you’re determined to go ahead be sure to piggyback on the success of others. Implement data portability techniques to allow people to use their membership of existing sites to sign up for your community more easily.
  • Regulation and legislation
  • Social, political and economic needs of users and producers determine participation.
    • What’s in, what’s out, what matters? Linje Mayozo has criticised the modernist tendency of people to try and avoid mentioning poverty in relation to Africa and to look at the multi-faceted character of people’s lives. He has argued that in some places, if you are not talking about poverty, people will not understand what you are talking about. If you find there is something uncomfortable about the reality of the your community members, don’t ignore it, try and embrace it. This can lead to interesting initiatives – such as MTV’s fantastically successful campaign to submit music tracks and raise awareness about HIV / AIDS. The Staying Alive Campaign.
  • Access to technology, competency to use it and time-poverty
    • What platforms will people access your community from and when? Are people able to reach you from their home, workplace or school? How fast are their connections? Be sure to consider the dramatic impact a slow-loading site over a slow connection can have on user experience.
    • Can your target members use the interface you are designing, and if not how might you help them / encourage them to learn? Sit with them, watch how they use the web, use your site. Even the most simplest of interfaces benefit from user testing. Google users wait for footer to load.
    • In Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam argued citizens in modern America have a vastly reduced likelihood of meeting together and building ‘social capital.’ ‘Social capital’ refers to “features of social organization.. that facilitate coordination and cooperation for mutual benefit” (Putnam, 1995: p67). Howard Rheingold (1993) and others (e.g. Shirky, 2008) have argued the lack of community in the real world is fuelling demand for virtual communities. Think about how can you convince your target members there is value to becoming a part of your community, when they work long hours and have only a couple of hours a day to interact with others. Consider facilitating offline as well as online interaction.

This blog is about utilizing and optimizing the social web for business, pleasure and social change

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