Reciprocity is one of the key factors that allows communities to work. As science has shown, humans developed reciprocity as a reflex to become the only hyper-social species without all being brothers and sisters.
In small tribes and groups, reciprocity is often based on face-to-faceness – you physically help someone care for a child, or you help them move their stuff, and expect them to help you back later on. But reciprocity seems to work on a much bigger scale than face-to-faceness could ever explain – think of people supporting the green movement in Iran (#iranelection) by traveling to NY and demonstrating at the UN, or think how even the French all felt like Americans after 9/11.
What is going on here, and how can reciprocity scale beyond face-to-faceness?
In his book “Us and Them, Understanding Your Tribal Mind,” David Berreby says:
My fellow feeling for the people of New York does not depend on everyone of us taking turns doing each other’s dishes… For a city or nation to exist, its members must be good at satisfying their need for reciprocity with symbols, not actions.
Symbols, signals, and rules are the key to scaling reciprocity, and by proxy, the key to making large communities work. If I read advice coming from a community of Firefighters (disclosure: Monster is a client of ours) I will trust that advice even if I do not know anyone in that community because in my mind I equate being a firefighter with a strong sense of duty and trust.
There are symbols and rules that are very strong in humans – race, religion, and language come to mind. But there are others that are much more artificial – think of people who have a shared experience based on attending one of the Burning Man events, people who enjoy the riding lifestyle by driving a Harley, or the importance of uniforms.
So when you think about communities, besides making sure to base them on a shared passion or pain among the members, think if there are other symbols or rules that you can leverage to make the bonds even deeper and the trust higher – which will then lead to decreasing transaction costs and increasing transactions.
And when you do leverage symbols and rules, make sure that they have a shared meaning among the people you want to engage with – Harley may be associated with the love of a riding lifestyle for most Harley owners, but may also be associated with gangs for people outside of that community.