Social Debt

If you helped me find a great designer, I’d help you find a great community manager (should you need one).

If not, I’d look for another way to help you.

Even if my help didn’t quite match (or significantly exceeded) the help you had given me.

I’d do that because I’d feel a social debt towards you. You helped me, so I want to help you.

If I don’t repay my social debts, that becomes part of my reputation. People stop helping me in the future. I can no longer ask for good advice ‘on credit’ – that I’d repay in the future.

We seem wired to repay our social debts. Social debts have been the basis of community for almost 5000 years. Communities (genuine communities at least) are a collection of social debts between members on a mass scale.

Notice the phrase ‘between members’. Everyone is in everyone else’s debt – and that’s a good thing.

People aren’t indebted to the community. They’re indebted to specific people within the group. They can call upon or ask for favours from specific people.

This matters. Too often we ask people to do things that ‘helps the community’. But a community en-masse can’t easily repay a social debt. Even if some entity such as the ‘the community’ did provide advice, it’s not easy to repay a generic entity.

Build the bonds between members not with a community entity. If someone has a question, nudge them to approach (or tag in) specific people who can help. Try to facilitate social debts between members. Encourage people to call upon help from specific people. Call upon specific people to help other specific people.

The community is a collection of individuals, you need to individualise it.


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  1. Alessio Fattorini says:

    Real truth :+1:
    I’m trying to do this every single day and working on a list of member by expertise which should help me to call right people for the right question.

  2. Nick Emmett says:

    I like this - I guess sometimes we facilitate this without realising, and some sometimes we need to think harder to make sure we are enabling this. Paying it forward is another concept I like to think of with Community members, basically the same as this but instead of/along with paying back the Social debt, people can be encouraged or motivated to help others when they feel the value gained by having questions answered in the Community. Posting a Question > Receiving an answer > Browse > See a question you can help with > Pay It Forward.

  3. Richard Millington says:

    Thanks guys. I think Hawk is actually working on building up this excel list which should really help us here in the future.

  4. Nick Emmett says:

    The excel list being what part of this process for you @richard_millington?

  5. Sarah Hawk says:

    Essentially a database of our members, the field they work in, and any special areas of knowledge or interest.
    The idea being that I can specifically tag people in when a question that is relevant to them is asked (or help people to connect offline if necessary).

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