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A Mint.com for Social Capital

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We are in the middle of one of the largest and fastest macro shifts in world economic history — the development of a social capital infrastructure analogous to the financial infrastructure built over the past five hundred years. Led by the growth of social networks, the value we are building in our personal relationships is becoming more and more comparable to “true” currency. In fact, social capital is coming closer to fully adopting the three core characteristics of money:

Medium of Exchange: It is far easier to reach all of my friends today than it was ten or even five years ago. More importantly, this communication has clear, quantifiable value that I can exchange for other goods. This has never been the case without insane transaction cost in the past.

Store of Value: I can now much more efficiently build, store and display my social capital. Twitter followers do not deteriorate as quickly in value without maintenance as real-life friends.

Unit of Account: The units of social capital have become far more standardized and concrete. Ten years ago it was meaningless to say you have “300 friends”. Today, the Friend (or the LinkedIn connection or the Twitter follower) is a far more meaningful unit of account.

I had the pleasure of joining Emily Hickey and Michael Yavonditte of Hashable for a demo of their product last week. In brief, Hashable turns the transactions of the social capital economy — introductions, breakfasts, lunches, coffees, beers, et cetera — into a game. I get points when I make an introduction or log a meeting in their system, for instance.

Given its check-in and gaming features, It’s tempting to refer to Hashable as “Foursquare for people”. But I think that’s missing the bigger opportunity — a Mint.com for social capital. Social capital isn’t a game any more than my bank account is a game. Sure, it has some game-like elements — it goes up and down in accordance with how well I “play” the game of life — but ultimately it has its most significant meaning outside of the context of any game framework we put around it. And that is where the real world-changing products will be made.

The next generation of successful social products will acknowledge that our social capital is a currency. They will provide tools to enhance our social capital’s functionality as a store of value, a medium of exchange and a unit of account. They will replicate the deep feature set at our hands to deal with money — banking, tracking, exchanging, investing, et cetera — for our connections and relationships. Over the past five years, social networks and the decreasing cost of bandwidth and storage have lowered the transaction costs of social capital exchanges by orders of magnitude. Now, the race is on to provide the best tools and infrastructure around this new currency.

Putting everything in the context of a game is a good way to get quick user traction among a competitive tech community. But social capital isn’t a game, and the biggest companies in the space five years from now will have grown by providing fundamentally useful functionality that helps everyone earn, save, exchange and optimize social capital.

Special thanks to Sam Lessin for helping shape my thoughts on this stuff. If you don’t subscribe to his letter.ly, you are missing some of the most thought-provoking writing in tech today.

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Written by Brad Hargreaves

September 19th, 2010 at 1:58 pm