The Truth about Social Glue

These days, social glue seems to be all rave. If you’re a marketer, a researcher, a community manager, or a social networking enthusiast, you’ve probably made understanding social glue your business. Heck, at Communispace, we pride ourselves in our ability to find and generate social glue among the most challenging demographics.

As a basis for this post, I had hoped to offer a definition of “social glue,” but finding one turns out to be rather difficult. It’s not listed on Dictionary.com, and even the collective brain at Wikipedia hasn’t given the term its own section. I think my fellow CSpacer, Rich, does a solid job describing social glue when he discusses its role on social networking sites, “A network has to have commonality among its users, a unique draw to engage its audience to come back for more.” (If you haven’t read his post yet, check it out here.)

Yet, what I find interesting—and sometimes limiting—about the way many of us think about social glue is that we only notice points of similarity. We believe that social glue is based upon agreement, not discord. We try to match demographics, professions and/or hobbies. And while that may seem all well and good, appearances can be deceiving—apologies for the cliché. If you take a closer look at social glue, you’ll see that it draws strength from disagreement.

Why do people decide to join a social network (be it online or off)? Are they looking to find others who are exactly the same, who share every feature, hobby, aspiration and belief, who think and act in precisely the same way? I think the answer is clearly no. People join social networks to meet people who compare and contrast with themselves.

This should be obvious; in our personal relationships, particularly those that are romantic, we are often attracted to others who complement our strengths and weaknesses. We do this because we have nothing to learn or gain from people who are too similar. Diversity offers the greatest opportunity for growth, and that is what keeps us interested.

Likewise, if social glue were only based on similarities, it would be unsustainable. The way I see it, a successful community creates an environment in which its members seek personal development through disagreement and diversity. Social glue is about learning, not just agreeing.

I think it’s about time we rethink social glue. Who’s with me?

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3 thoughts on “The Truth about Social Glue

  1. Nate, first, thanks for the shout out! Second, i couldn’t agree more. It’s not always about finding homogeneity but also about finding the perfect chemistry. Sometimes a group needs a common enemy or a goal. Or sometimes they just need to agree to disagree. I found over the years that some of the most engaging conversations in some of our communities come from members who have very divergent points of view but respect their fellow members enough to share them in a thoughtful manner.

    1. Thanks, Rich. I think it will be fascinating to see if social networks begin trying new “social glues” to keep their members interested.

  2. Great points, Nate. I remember reading an article in Psychology Today about the ways friendships evolve and shift over time. Their point was that having a diverse group of friends, even relationships that make us “uncomfortable,” actually forces us to grow and push our boundaries. So you shouldn’t give up on an old friendship just because they move away, get a new job, have a baby, etc.

    And I think the same principle definitely applies in online networks. In fact, research on our communities that contain members from multiple countries – where native language, geography and shared culture are NOT a basis for social glue – found they had higher-than-average ownership rates (that is, the amount of content on the site that is member-generated). This indicated to us that they were just as eager to talk to and learn from each other as they were the brand, despite their obvious superficial differences.

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