A few days ago I was driving down the Freeway and as I took the exit something unexpected happened. All the lights in my car turned off, the engine went dead and the car rolled to a complete stop halfway in the interaction. There wasn’t anybody around, so I got out of my car and had a slight moment of panic. What happened, and what was I going to do about it? I could forget about arriving to my meeting on time- even though it was less than a block away.
Just then a stranger rolled up in what looked like a restored muscle car, the driver got out and asked how he could help. Even though he was dressed in a suit and tie, we decided the best idea would be to push the car out of the intersection. I helped get the car rolling then jumped in to steer the car, fortunately it was a slight hill, so with his help I was able to drive the car into the parking lot and get where I was headed to. I was a little late, and out of breath when I got there, but I felt great.
I introduced myself, shook the man’s hand, and we parted ways. We both left feeling great from the exchange. When people do good deeds like this for each other, there is a chemical released called oxytocin. Both the helper and the helped experience this chemical high. What is interesting to note is that even the onlookers, other strangers driving by, they also feel this high, just from the act of observing somebody give and sacrifice for a total strangers. As humans it is part of our makeup. We are wired to help others in need, even if we don’t know them. This is what helped us survive when we lived in small tribes.
Social media can provide a similar high, if we know how to use it. Yesterday I was asked to speak with a panel on Social Media for the Legal Profession by the ABA Antitrust Section. The topic was social media, but everybody on the call was clearly the most enamored with Twitter and the ability to find other like minded people all over the world to discuss antitrust issues with.
You can see the recorded “Google Hangout” here.
As an early adopter and huge lover of Twitter, I can’t help but think that one of the biggest reasons people enjoy Twitter so much is this ability to help and be helped by total strangers. It isn’t that everyone on Twitter is looking to perform random acts of charity, but that the tool helps facilitate the exchange of information in a way that gives credit to those who give the most. Share a great blog post, you may get your article “favorited” many times. Share something useful, it may be retweeted dozens of times. Who gets the most out of the exchange? The person that shared the article, but everybody that participated in the exchange benefits.
For this same reason, the online community has had such a visceral, negative reaction to the story of the Ohio Marketer who scolded a stranger for asking to join her LinkedIn network. Helping strangers isn’t the only possible outcome of social media use, but it is the very substance of what makes social media so powerful. Real networks effects occur because everyone is willing to share content and connections. Those same network effects that this Ohio marketer has benefited from greatly over the last year were turned squarely against her when she broke this unspoken social contract. Everyone gives and everyone benefits. I’m not saying that she should or shouldn’t have helped the stranger that reached out to her, but to pretend like it was inappropriate for the young person to ask? This was the mistake that turned the mob against her.
There will be a segment of the population that will continue to insist that social media is a distraction and a waste of time. There may be better things to do with your free time, but most of them won’t make you feel as good as helping someone share something meaningful or providing someone with a contact that helps land them a job.