q: What do you call someone who joins communities, adds friends and generally uses social networking tools to promote their own interests solely? a: a community freeloader

Now, promoting your interests within a community isn't a bad thing, per se. Having strong networks of people is a great advantage to furthering your causes, getting advice, meeting the right contacts to further your career and getting folks out to your events. However, where it becomes problematic is when you lose the balance of DEPOSIT and WITHDRAWAL in that Social Capital bank account of yours.

Balancing Your Social Capital Accounts

Now, I don't want to reduce every interaction we human beings have with another person to being a transaction, but, in effect, it is. If I ask a friend for a favor, she is bound oblige. However, if I ask that same friend for ten favors, she may start to feel like I've depleted my 'allowance' on my account with her. Of course, with different people, we have more leeway. With our close friends and family we have loads of Social Capital to withdraw from and as our relationships get more casual, the less influence and favor we carry with others.

For instance, have you ever heard yourself saying, "I don't want to use up my favors with him" or "It's time to cash in those favors"? Well, whether we are aware of it or not, there is a transaction - even if it isn't always direct or equally reciprocated - that happens between people. In the book that I'm currently reading, The Origins of Virtue: Human Instincts and the Evolution of Cooperation, Matt Ridley points out that this isn't unique to our culture or even to us as human beings. Tit-for-tat is a common tool for community balance amongst many cultures as well as animal groups. It ensures that people both contribute as well as benefit to the commons.

It is actually a very positive part of our relationships - especially when we do a favor for someone without expecting it in immediate return. Those favors add up to a great deal of future Social Capital. And that Social Capital goes a long way in the future.

What I've observed in the various communities I've been part of is the entrance of community freeloaders, or, really, the types of people who just withdrawal their Social Capital until their totally whuffie poor, then wonder why they aren't getting ahead. These people are what economists call 'rational fools':

...far from being altruistic, the cooperative person is merely looking out to his long-term self-interest, rather than the short term....Amartya Sen has called the caricature of the short-sighted self-interested person a 'rational fool'. If the rational fool turns out to be taking short-sighted decisions then he is not being rational, just short sighted. He is indeed a fool who fails to consider the (long term) effect of his actions... - p.137

It is rational (economically) to take advantages of people in the short-term to make gains, but as Ridley points out, it is the generous villagers who are almost always the dominant ones. (p. 98)

Deposits and Withdrawals

So what kinds of actions are DEPOSITS and what kind of actions are WITHDRAWALS? Well, it really does depend on the community and the individuals you interact with. For instance, most people would probably feel good about helping out an even casual acquaintance with an introduction to another acquaintance. Some may put a caveat on the introduction ("I don't know him too well, but he comes highly recommended", etc.). Of course, the size of that favor also matters to whether the withdrawal is too large for the relationship. If someone I just met asked me to introduce them to Jimmy Wales, I would probably feel that was a little presumptive and would need them to spend more time establishing their trustworthiness with me before I passed that introduction along as a misfired introduction may hurt my own reputation with Jimmy. But most first favors may actually be a deposit (leaving me with the feeling of having done something nice for someone else, I warm up to the person), then start to become withdrawals after that point.

But if we were to speak in general terms about what is a DEPOSIT and what is a WITHDRAWAL, I would present the following table:

First favor. Performing a favor. Second favor and so on.
Requesting simple advice. Implementing that advice. Giving advice. Rewarding those who gave you advice. Requesting a great deal of advice from an associate for your personal gain.
Asking for a lateral introduction. Introducing others for no personal gain. Sending a thank you for an introduction. Asking for a prestigious introduction. Second introduction and so on.
Promoting your event. Throwing a great event that people really enjoy and get lots out of. Attending other people's events. Helping others promote their events. Volunteering at events. Promoting endless events. Expecting that people come to your events when you don't go to theirs.
Telling someone casually about the work you do and your company. Asking someone else about the work they do and their company. Only interested in promoting the work you do and your company. Promoting your company. Selling.
Creating stuff and sharing it with others. Keeping secrets and being closed.
Creating something with other community members for the benefit of your community. Creating something that imposes your ideas and will on your community (even if you mean well).
Sending someone an exclusive beta test invitation to your hot new startup (that they already know about). Rewarding beta testers for the valuable feedback they give (by being open and communicative and implementing their ideas with credit). Sending someone a beta test invite if they don't know who you are and you haven't previously met. Requesting feedback constantly.
Giving your time to community projects. Encouraging people to get involved in your projects. Competing with other community projects.
Offering help to a n00b. Only hanging with and being interested in the A-Listers.
Being there for the right information when someone needs to make a purchase. Giving people unsolicited pitches when someone is busy.

Of course, this list isn't conclusive, the withdrawals aren't all for the same amount and there are alot of grey areas for people, but you get the gist. What the things in the DEPOSIT column have in common is that they are reciprocal, relationship-building actions, whereas, the WITHDRAWAL column is about personal gain. Now, of course, there is personal gain in the relationships, but it is a long-term gain, rather than the short-term gains of the WITHDRAWAL column.

And don't get me wrong, promoting your events, asking for connections and telling people about your company are totally viable, real and legitimate actions that are and should be performed within networks and communities every day. The trick is, just like a bank account, make sure you have a healthy account balance (ie. more deposited than withdrawn). As well, much like a personal bank account, it is beneficial to carry a higher balance. You never know when you'll have a rainy day.