Photo Credit: Birds on a Wire by user Kiwi Flickr

Social Media vs. Social-Impact Networks

Social networks, not to be confused with social-impact networks. Photo by Gavin Llewellyn, used under Creative Commons licensing. Social networks, not to be confused with social-impact networks. Photo by Gavin Llewellyn, used under Creative Commons licensing.

Reposted from the Connecting to Change the World blog with permission When we first discussed with our publisher, David Miller, our interest in writing a book about network building, he wanted to make sure we would be clear about how the networks we wrote about were different from online social media networks. This was an important concern because so much public imagination has been captured by social-media websites and apps and the way millions of people use them to connect each other. The movie Social Network had cemented that image in place. Most of the social-impact networks we have worked with use social media, but none is just a social-media network. They use websites, listservs, e-mail, intranets, Twitter, and other apps so that network members can communicate with each other easily, inexpensively, and in ways that promote responsiveness and some collaboration. As the networks get bigger and take on more complex functions, such as aligning around an advocacy agenda or collaborating on innovative projects, their need to communicate effectively increases, so the availability of these types of tools becomes a critical factor in the network’s success. Some networks that start by using “off-the-shelf” IT solutions decide eventually to design something that is customized to what their members need and how they communicate with each other. This increases the cost of the network’s communications system, but it can also increase its effectiveness. Still—as we explain in chapter 1 of Connecting to Change the World—social media information technologies are just tools for the network and not the only way that network members engage with each other. Unlike the members of a social-impact network, who typically number in the hundreds, the millions of users of online services don’t share a desire for specific social impact. They enter and exit the online services willy-nilly. They connect with some, but not nearly all, of the other members in the service. And it’s the service providers, not the members, who make the rules that regulate activities. This doesn’t look anything like the social-impact networks we write about in Connecting to Change the World, whose members embrace and enact a collective purpose, set the mission and goals, and make the rules for participation and decision-making. Social media are remarkably powerful. We tell the story of how comedian Steven Colbert asked his Internet and TV audiences to out-donate the nation of China, which had pledged only $100,000 in disaster relief for a typhoon in the Philippines. And “Colbert Nation” did it—donating more than $250,000. This was a great example of crowdfunding using social-media tools. But it’s not a social-impact network. At the heart of a social-impact network is a deep, lasting trust between members, and this is usually built through in-person time together (supplemented by communication online) that allows people to “size each other up,” test each other, feel (or not feel) some chemistry with each other. Trust building allows members to share efficiently and effectively with each other—sharing not just information or aspirations, but the deep, “insider” information of practitioners: their questions, failures, frustrations, and successes. And trust allows members to treat each other with generosity. They give their attention, knowledge, skills, connections, and resources to each other, in the expectation that giving will be rewarded by getting from others. As we explain in chapter 1, “The Generative Network Difference,” trust is the basis for the mutual exchange—reciprocity among members—that drives a network’s success. Social media can facilitate and enhance trust building, but it doesn’t replace the necessity of connecting in the flesh, eyeball-to-eyeball.