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Summary Article: Reciprocity from Encyclopedia of Social Networks

Reciprocity is giving with the expectation of receiving in the future. Members of social networks often promote, facilitate, and monitor reciprocity among members. Social networks foster reciprocity more than relationships outside any network. Because social networks provide greater outlets for “payback,” reciprocity is more likely. A perceived greater likelihood of being able to repay leads to increased acceptance of a gift. The type of giving and receiving inside social networks often varies from the general reciprocity seen in individual relationships.

General reciprocity is when a resource available to one person or group is “freely” given to another person(s). Although the resource is given freely, there is a strong expectation, usually implicit, that the recipient will repay the giver with a similar gesture in the future. A typical nuance of general reciprocity is that if the receiver does not return the favor when given an opportunity, it is often understood that no further gifts will be given. Reciprocity promotes a culture of giving and receiving that builds and supports relational ties.

Reciprocity in Social Networks

An important distinction is between interpersonal and social network reciprocity. Within interpersonal relationships, receiving can be limited by the perceived ability to repay the gift. If an individual believes that there will be no opportunity to repay the “gift,” the gesture will often be refused. Otherwise, the receiver will be permanently indebted to the giver with no opportunity to repay the debt. The result is that reciprocity in interpersonal relationships is limited by the recipient's perception of future opportunities with the giver.

Social networks provide a different and more flexible arrangement for repayment. When an individual gives to a member of a social network, the common implication is that repayment does not need to be directly to the original giver but to another person in the network. For example, the requisite invitation to join the network may have to come from a current member. When the member gives the gift of an invitation, the implied understanding may be that the new initiate will do likewise for future potential members. It would be impossible to repay the original giver, but receiving is contingent on agreeing to behave likewise in order to propagate and sustain the social network. The likelihood of repayment increases because of the greater number of potential recipients. If the opportunities for repayment are greater, the initial willingness to receive is also greater.

Similarly, the method of repayment within a social network may be dispersed rather than directed at the primal giver. Because there are more perceived options for repayment, initial willingness to receive is more likely. In other words, individuals are more open to receiving if they believe the chances of relieving the indebtedness are greater.

Members of social networks also promote the sustainment and strength of the network by monitoring a lack of reciprocity. Often members who are judged to not adequately repay are eliminated from the network. This exile can be accomplished by direct means, like removal, or indirect means such as the elimination of access to network resources or a termination of reciprocal acts.

In business, reciprocity creates strong networking relationships that eventually reap benefits such as referrals, often in an indirect way. Reciprocity can be a powerful tool for growing a business, not only in terms of size and profitability, but also in social capital.

Social Capital and Online Social Networks

Reciprocity gives the impression of an openness to invest in another person, trusting that the investment will reap dividends. Within social networks, the investment is no longer seen as simply in the individual but in the network as a whole. Giving, trusting, and sacrificing for the good of the network, among other acts, creates a resource known as social capital. Therefore, reciprocity leads to an increase in the social capital between involved network members.

Robert Putnum's best-selling book Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community (2000) claimed that social networks declined in the latter half of the 20th century. An outcome of diminished social networks was that social capital also declined, resulting in a reduced occurrence and expectation of reciprocity. The situation created a negative spiral where lower reciprocity led to lower social capital and vice versa.

Adding to the complexity of reciprocity in social networks has been the advent and rapid adoption of online social networking. Research has shown that online social networks require very little cost to members, creates the perception of increased connectivity, and involves ease of joining the network and less member ownership of network operations and maintenance. The result is increased potential for thin connections within a social network while earning little or no social capital. In the absence of social capital investment and development, the anticipation of reciprocity dramatically decreases. In other words, a member of an online social network may have hundreds, even thousands, of connections but very few that result in an expectation of reciprocal giving beyond the online activity.

Conversely, research has also shown that many online social networks are very highly involved in building “bridge” relationships, also known as bridging social capital. These bridges may lead to further engagement beyond online activity that leads to the cultivation of interpersonal relationships and thereby promotes reciprocity. Further research is needed to better understand how online social networks affect reciprocity, both in virtual and physical worlds.

See Also:

Cooperation/Coordination, CouchSurfing, Facebook, Letter-Writing, MySpace, Papua New Guinea, Social Capital.

Further Readings
  • Ellison, Nicole B.; Steinfield, Charles; Lampe, Cliff “The Benefits of Facebook ‘Friends’: Social Capital and College Students' Use of Online Social Networking Sites.” Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication, v.12/2.
  • Lin, Nan, Cook, Karen, and Burt, Ronald S., eds. Social Capital: Theory and Research. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers, 2008.
  • Putnam, Robert. Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2000.
  • Fondren, Wes
    Coastal Carolina University Coastal Carolina University
    SAGE Publications, Inc.

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