Monday, August 30, 2010

Reading :: The Whuffie Factor

The Whuffie Factor: Using the Power of Social Networks to Build Your Business
By Tara Hunt

Tara Hunt is an online marketing professional, one of the most influential women in technology, and a founding member of San Francisco-based coworking site CitizenSpace. It's the coworking connection that caught my eye and convinced me to read the book. And although Hunt speaks of coworking very briefly, she makes clear how it grows out of the larger theme of the book: social capital, or "whuffie."

Whuffie is a term that comes from science fiction writer (and BoingBoing creator) Cory Doctorow, from his book Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom (Hunt p.4). In Doctorow's novel, monetary capital had been replaced by social capital, which could be built by being nice, networked, or notable (p.4). A social capitalist builds and nurtures community, increasing whuffie; and whuffie leads to monetary capital (rather than the other way round) (p.2). This concept of whuffie, Hunt says, is increasingly important: when everyone is connected, everyone is an influencer, and Gladwell's The Tipping Point is out of date.

Case in point: Coworking. Hunt argues that coworking is a great example of whuffie in action. She credits Brad Neuberg with coming up with the idea: "he decided to rent a space in a community center in the Mission area of San Francisco for two days a week and advertise to other independent workers to come by and pay $15 to have a collaborative work experience" (p.23). At the time, Hunt was working with Chris Messina. "Chris Messina, my business partner, had the idea that a more permanent space would help develop more interest and asked Brad if he would mind if we used his coworking idea to describe our concept. Brad agreed" (p.23). Hunt credits online connections, including connections on Meetup, Flickr, a Google group, and PBWiki, for the spread of the coworking movement. "Even before we found a space, an odd phenomenon occurred. People from across the United States started to join the Google group and post their interest in setting up their own coworking space in their local community. ... They would take our lessons and use them in their own pursuits" (p.24). Hunt and Messina went on to cofound two coworking spaces, The Hat Factory and Citizen Space (p.24). Hunt concludes: "Spaces like ours existed well before the Internet. But the movement was only possible because of the Internet and the plethora of amazing collaborative and community tools" (p.25).

The rest of the book has simple, but important and (to many) counterintuitive lessons about whuffie. Hunt offers these lessons with several clear examples from Internet-based startups, services, and marketing campaigns. As in books of this genre, some of these examples go out of date quickly - but the lessons they illustrate are still valuable and still being learned. For instance, Hunt emphasizes that when you pay for whuffie, you extinguish it (p.48); that building whuffie requires "turning the bullhorn around" and having conversations with customers (Ch.3); that you must be able to not just listen, but also integrate feedback (Ch.4); that "whuffie only grows when you participate genuinely in a community, listening and integrating feedback" (p.118).

As a window into the nascent coworking movement, this book is quite valuable. The lessons on whuffie will probably not be terribly novel for those who read BoingBoing or who have read The Cluetrain Manifesto (which Hunt cites), but she summarizes and illustrates these ideas quite well. All in all, it's an interesting and engaging book as well as a fast read.

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