We think we are being interesting to others when we are being interesting to ourselves. – Jack Gardner, Words Are Not Things
What makes people use one technology platform and not another?
Why does Wikipedia work while Microsoft Encarta didn’t?
And what can you do to increase the chances of getting people to buy into your ideas?
The common theme behind such questions is our curiosity about other people – about the ways our societies work.
And Clay Shirky, in his book Here comes everybody: How change happens when people come together signposted the work of Alan Page Fiske, who came up with Relational Models Theory – which makes it much easier to think about why people act the way they do.
Once you get past the academic words, that is.
According to Fiske, there are four basic ways in which we relate to others.
The first way has to do with what we share in common.
It’s the shared interest that matters – not the interest itself.
Being someone who likes fine wine and being someone who is racist are the same in this world – where you share those likes with others.
That’s called communal sharing.
Then there’s what we see as normal in the world around us – kings and queens and leaders and dictators.
Whether it’s governments or companies relationships based on hierarchy and authority are all around us.
All that matters is where you are in the pecking order – what’s called authority ranking.
Then there’s another way to be – one where we’re at the same level. Roughly equal, most of the time.
But when somethings gets out of balance we do something to bring things level again – like the relationship you have with your other half or with the kids.
That’s called equality matching.
And finally, you have the market – where what you have is reduced to a share that’s in proportion to what you bring in exchange.
In other words, market pricing.
So, how do these four models help us make sense of things?
Well, you’ll often hear advice about finding your tribe.
Like there are people out there who really like what you like as well and what you need to do is go out there and lead them.
Or make sure that they can find you – make sure everything you do is about making it easier for that group of people to find you and engage with you.
That sounds like communal sharing, at first.
But if you’re trying to lead your tribe – it also sounds like you want to get hold of some authority.
But why would someone support you… unless you were able to redress the balance and give them something they wanted – a helping of equality with a side order of pricing.
So, in reality, these models start to crash together – and it’s likely that there are few “pure” models of any type.
But there are combinations – and that can help you figure out what kind of approach can work for you.
But, at the same time, it’s easier to find examples of how to do this badly.
Take any organisation – and the chances are that you’ll find that the people in charge are really concerned about looking bad.
So concerned, in fact, that they say nothing of any value.
Corporate speak is often devoid of any humanity – excised by lawyers worried about baddies.
But these same organisations want you to share their stories and talk about them and idolise them.
So I suppose you get PR which exists entirely to create stories that no one really cares about.
The real thing that keeps these organisations alive is market pricing – whether they are providing supply to fill demand.
The fact is markets are just about the most effective way to figure out what people want.
And these days what we have is a market for attention – and people pay attention for whatever they find gives them the greatest return on their time – whether it’s cat videos or Latin podcasts.
So when you think about building a community – and an audience or an organisation are really both examples of communities – you need to decide what your social relation mix is going to look like.
Are you going to try and keep control of everything?
Or make it completely free and open – so free that you allow anyone else to take and remix your work for free?
Or, are you going to try and fake it?
Make it look open and communal while keeping all the control?
There are probably examples where all those approaches work – but the last one is perhaps not built on the best foundations.
Take Medium, for example.
Lots of people started writing on Medium because it seemed like they would have larger audiences.
Some have found that that’s not worked out so well – and are moving back to their own platforms because they’ve effectively cannibalised their own traffic.
That’s something you’ll find – once you start giving up control to other people – at some point you’ll find you have no control left.
Paradoxically – that’s when you might also find you’ve got the greatest reach.
The challenge is finding what mix works for the situation you’re in right now.