The Whuffie Factor


The very final talk of Thinking Digital last Friday was by Tara Hunt, who was talking about social capital in networks as part of her new book ‘The Whuffie Factor’. ‘Whuffie’, a word originally from Cory Doctorow’s novel ‘Down & Out In The Magic Kingdom’, is used by Tara to mean what has been also been described as ‘social capital’ or ‘guanxi’ in discussions of intra-community relations.

Of course in many ways the word ‘capital’ is opposite to its normal usage – whereas financial capital is exhausted by being used, social capital is only exhausted if it’s not used. As Tara put it – “the more you give away, the more you gain”. Online communities tend to be gift economies – but gift economies are nothing new and it’s worth studying their history – an excellent and very readable anthropological and sociological view is Lewis Hyde’s ‘The Gift’ and should be required reading for anyone who thinks social capital only came about with social media.

Of course there’s a natural tension between gift economies and market economies. Giving away everything for free is not the soundest of business models (although Matt Mason, author of ‘The Pirate’s Dilemma’, had some thoughts on that earlier in the day). But gifting time, help and effort to communities and helping the conversations within them, to help everyone’s whuffie grow (not just your own) is the key to proper social media engagement.

There is one quibble I have with Tara’s philosophy on whuffie – and I suspect this may be stuffy Brit clashing with extroverted American – which is her emphasis on being light-hearted. While I’d agree that having a sense of humour is important, being human is more important. And there are many occasions when it’s not appropriate to be light-hearted, particularly dealing with experiences and conversations that are negative. It’s harder to convey emotion in text when online than in person, and you need to be sensitive and respectful as much as you need to be good-humoured in those situations.

Tara’s presentation is at the top of the post – do check it out – although her rapid-fire and engaging presentation style mean it was much better with her speaking over the top of it…