The mutuality of networks

Relationships have to be two-way to be meaningful, otherwise they aren’t a relationship. We need to both give and receive for the connection to be real, for the connection to be purposeful. I’m wary of posting anything that might sound like a diatribe on social media, there other people better qualified in diatribes than I am, but there seems to me to be a disconnect developing between the online and offline approaches to people’s networks.

I’m very lucky to have a close group of neighbours and if one of us is away, another will step in to check the mail, feed an animal or just make sure that everything is ok.  But it is a shared commitment that we all have, unspoken, unrequested, bit critically important to the living breathing community that we have become.  If one neighbour were to constantly be asking for help, but never providing then unless they had some specific reason I’m certain that after a period of time it would become awkward.

Likewise, the business  people who I know in and out of my business also have this mutuality of commitment at the base of their relationships with me.  If I need something, I can call on my network and they will, if they can, come to my assistance.  And of course, I will come to their’s too if it is within my power.  The phrase “you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours” is often seen in a dim light, but in reality this is at the basis of everything that we do.  It doesn’t have to be now, it doesn’t have to be tomorrow but I’d like to believe that people are there for me.

I had a conversation with Jon Ingham last week about a subject not a million miles away from this.  We don’t hold the same views on influence and connectivity, but we share a lot of overlapping thoughts, opinions and beliefs.  In an online world it is easy to confuse “connections” with connection.  We can have a gazillion followers, or a bazillion “friends” (ok so I made that word up) but the quality of this interface is something that is a lot harder to get at, to measure, to understand. I’m quite happy to connect on LinkedIn with people who I know, know of, or have met.  Likewise I am happy to recommend people who I genuinely WOULD recommend.  Less so those people who wish to do so because I work in HR and they feel that there might be some benefit for them.

But isn’t that a bit…..selfish? If I can help someone, then shouldn’t I try to do so?

Well yes, and no.  I’d like to think that over time, I’ve been helpful to people who I’ve met online. Can I write this? Can I speak at that? Would I have a look at this and tell them what I think? Of course.  The difference is that these people have interacted with me beforehand and I have a belief that if I were to need something in the future, they would reciprocate.  I haven’t “got” anything from them, other than the time of day and a bit of a chat about XY and Z, but the intention in approaching wasn’t about what they could get, that came later.

But giving can be more than acts, it can be content and thought, it can be support and advice.  I’m open to friend requests on Facebook or follower on Twitter (haven’t quite got my head around Google+ yet which seems a bit of a free for all) but at the same time as I hope I contribute to a conversation, I look to others to do so too.  If you follow 11 people and have a thousand followers, you are going to be in transmit mode constantly (I saw a senior Head of Resourcing with this sort of profile the other day and thought…no thank you).

I guess where I’m getting to, what I’m starting to think is that there needs to be some level of value. And value isn’t a number, but more a sense, a feeling an emotion. It isn’t about frequency, I have some great friends and contacts that I speak to only time to time, but I know that should I ever need anything, they would be there.  Networks, relationships, communities are all about mutuality, not just of purpose, but of contribution.

Offline and online should be no different in that respect.


  1. mastersorbust · August 2, 2011

    Nice post Neil

    Expresses from a real perspective how caught up “we” all are in online influence and the metrics that have been created around it.

    The one downside is I may have to short your stock on Electric Avenue now 😉

    • Neil · September 6, 2011

      If you can explain Empire Avenue to me I’d be delighted….seems like the most pointless waste of time since…….well blogging!

  2. Jamie Leonard · August 2, 2011

    I agree. Online connections should be treated the same as offline connections.  Would I ask someone I’ve only ever known on LI to recommend me? No. Would I ask a follower on Twitter their advise on what job board to use? Yes I would.  In the real world, you wouldn’t ask someone you’ve never met, to recommend you to a future employer, but on LI, it’s happened to me, a lot. No problem. I’m an adult and I chose not to recommend them. Levels of offline connections are like circles that form around you, like when you cut a tree trunk through the middle, slowly fading outwards.  Your closest circle could be family, that you would comfortably ask for anything, and it moves out, through friends, co-workers, etc, however you choose to level your connections.  We’ve managed, over 000’s of years, to establish social protocol for these levels.  We’re still touching the electric fence online, and finding the boundaries.

    • Neil · September 6, 2011

      Great comment Jamie, thank you. Yes I guess we are still finding boundaries, how we do so online is really interesting though.

  3. David Goddin · August 3, 2011

    Neil, the value you speak of is innate in most of us – it’s what we value. I don’t think there’s any way or need to put a number on it. Alison (@HRJuggler) ( wrote a really good blog recently on “Social Vanity” which I think relates to this thread.

    I really like Jon’s last sentence but wonder what it means if we don’t know our boundaries already? (I think this is in part what you are bringing across Neil.) What is it about social media that seems to give some people permission to behave in a way they never would offline? Perhaps it’s a useful reflection on society today that without the norms and conventions of say home or the workplace, many people don’t fully understand their boundaries or are alive to their personal values.

    One final thought on reciprocity & altruism – these are the words that come to mind as I read your post. Personally, I think there needs to be a mix of both… giving without expectation of return (altruism) as well as giving knowing it will/could be reciprocated (reciprocity). Neither are charity. Neither are about transmit mode. Both can reflect what you value. Both are the real world.

    • Neil · September 6, 2011

      David, as ever you add to the debate more than the original post. Your comments on altruism and reciprocity are spot on.

  4. Henry Berry · August 4, 2011

    Nice one.

    1. I truly hope I’d be there for you if you needed me. My test of this is not reciprocity but simply do I like you enough to offer it, without any expectation of exchange. That is naturally coloured by how much is given in relation to how much is received – the stroke balance if you like. You go on giving because it still feels right to do so, still feels, in the big and the round, balanced.
    2. There is something in me which rebels about the recommendation function of Linked In. I have only one recommendation – and I did not ask for it. I have been trying to delete it, but can’t find a functionality to do so on the site. I don’t want it or like it. There’s something horrible,something commodotizing and actually devaluing about the public parade of recommendations.
    3. it ties in with relationship. The magic of a relationship is expressed in a thousand thousand thoughts words and deeds. Putting a label on the relationship which shorthands it as (lets say) magic, or special or even, dare I say it “I love you” has always seemed to me to deny the deeper truth of action.

    • Neil · September 6, 2011

      Point 3 = Poetry. Thank you.

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