If you’ve seen “The Matrix,” you probably remember your first glimpse of the “real world.”
In that stormy, dark dystopia, machines harvest bioelectricity from human beings who live a comatose existence in a dream-like virtual reality called the Matrix. We see the real world for the first time moments after Neo, the protagonist, chooses to take the “red pill,” which stirs his physical body from its cybernetic sleep.
And if you’ve been on Facebook or Twitter, you must notice the ads, “sponsored content” and subtle suggestions that create revenue. While you’re plugged into these virtual realms, your social capital is harvested and sold to brands.
Here’s the difference: the Matrix is fake, but your activity and reputation on social networks has real value.
In other words, you are giving away your social capital for free. And while many people are happy with what they receive in return—a digital megaphone, an event planning system or the latest cat memes, among other things—you might be wondering: how do I take the red pill?
The first step is to acknowledge the idea that whatever a society deems valuable is a tradable commodity. For example, people find gold valuable. It’s beautiful and over the course of history, we’ve only mined enough to fill about three Olympic-size swimming pools, so it’s relatively rare. Because we value gold, we trade it as a commodity for other things we value. To facilitate the exchange of gold, we also allow the invisible hand of the market to determine its dollar value. At one time, we even used gold as the standard for the world’s currency.
In the world of “social”, there’s a new equivalent of gold. Your friendships, engagement and credibility are so valuable that brands are willing to pay for them. And much like gold, the value of your social capital is difficult to quantify; we just know it’s valuable and tradable. Mike Tyson was paid to tweet about Golden Crisp cereal, Miley Cyrus gets perks for tweeting about BlackJet and Ashton Kutcher is known for bringing his reach on Twitter into investment negotiations.
Paying dollars for tweets, however, is like shopping at a bazaar. In these situations, the person with the coins and bills usually fairs worse than the merchant. But let’s face it, most brands won’t pay the average or even above average user any money to post and tweet because so many will do it for free.
How then do average people—you know, you and me—take a cut of their own social value? By monetizing their social reach with a virtual social currency.
The way dollars bring transparency, ease and reliability to the exchange of labor and goods, a social currency can facilitate the buying and selling of social commodities and services.
A social currency is in essence like any other virtual currency and virtual money, just like virtual goods, is nothing new. When we buy iTunes music, we’re buying a virtual good—or rather, the rights to a virtual good. We do not own that MP4. We cannot sell it. The overwhelming majority of your money is (hopefully) in a bank account in virtual form. We know our banks do not have each and every one of those physical dollars on hand.
Exchanging favors, just like exchanging physical goods, is built into our human DNA. A virtual social currency helps us to understand the value of that favor by capturing the time, effort and skill we put into raising our social value.
In the landmark book How to Win Friends and Influence People, author Dale Carnegie quotes John D. Rockefeller saying that “The ability to deal with people is as purchasable a commodity as sugar or coffee, and I will pay more for that ability than for any other under the sun.”
If you have ever had a job, you’re social talents have already been commoditized. An employer like Rockefeller has purchased your ability to make a sale, lead a team or collaborate on a project. Indeed, by training you, giving you leadership responsibilities and raising your salary, your employer has invested in your social value. And when you invest in a social network, your posts, tweets and conversations can deliver just as much value as the sale of goods and services.
In The Matrix, the main character Neo took a red pill to awake from the slumber under which his was being harvested. In social media, maybe it is time for all of us to challenge the Matrix of our time. Isn’t it time to take the red pill and tap into your own social value?
Everyone else has benefitted and profited from the networks you have built. Maybe it’s time to turn the tables on them and see the power and value of the connections you have built.