Online social networks — encouraging sharing in the face of greed

[Below is a note I posted on orkut in response to a fellow who noted that he was erasing his entire friends list, which he viewed as a commodity not appropriate to share with others freely.]

One thing we might agree on as a concern is the issue of freeloading.

Basically, what to do against those who scrape data, use and/or abuse data in the aggregate or individually on orkut, or — less sinisterly — simply take much more than they give (e.g., someone who lists only 1 friend, but networks with or even asks something of countless others in a social network).

It’s a social networking tragedy of the commons… a few voracious grazers who don’t “replant” ruin the network for everyone else.

Then again, isn’t this simply like real life?

In any given city, 1% of the people do the volunteering / civic planning / cultural/infrastructure/political contributions, often for little or no extrinsic compensations. Being on the school board, contributing to citizens’ input meetings, etc. And the other 99% get a free ride (theoretically better-planned schools, more robust local economies, and so on).

The challenge, however, becomes one of preventing “leeching” (of others talent, good will, connections, etc.) while not punishing those who — for one reason or another — don’t have much to offer initially but are intent on working their way up and contributing later, or in different ways.

You may have fabulous connections, but someone may also have something you want. That someone may find your friends list valuable, and may (optimally) in return offer you something of value.

But if you don’t present the initial offering… if you don’t show up on the radar screen, then you become shut out of the social networking currency exchange. You’re not even ‘listed’ so to speak.

On a related note, take the example of your earlier offer to do paid consulting for orkut/Google. From this alone, the folks there may have little reason to understand or trust your knowledge, and thus little reason to hire you. But if you give too much feedback or assistance early, your help may be taken for granted.

The key, then, is in the balancing of threats and opportunities.



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What do you think?