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What Are The Unspoken Rules of Social Networks?

Posted By Daniel Scocco 20th of May 2008 Social Media 0 Comments

Bruce Simmons asks:

Social Network sites like Digg and StumbleUpon and what not seem to have unspoken rules about who can promote a blog. What I mean to say or ask is: OK, with Digg, one cannot submit their own blog. But Twitter, you can chest thump all day long.

Do have a list of what sites you can ‘chest thump’ on and other sites that you are reader dependent on?

What are social networking sites?

This is an interesting topic, and I feel that we should start with some very basic information. Contrary to what some people might think, social networks were not born online with Friendster and MySpace. Social network, in fact, is a very old term used to describe any social group where individuals and/or organizations form a specific structure with nodes and connections. Here is the Wikipedia definition:

A social network is a social structure made of nodes (which are generally individuals or organizations) that are tied by one or more specific types of interdependency, such as values, visions, idea, financial exchange, friends, kinship, dislike, conflict, trade, web links, sexual relations, disease transmission (epidemiology), or airline routes. The resulting structures are often very complex.

The Internet completely changed the way people used to communicate and interact, so it was a natural step to create virtual social networks, or social networking websites. Back in 1979 Usenet, a global Internet discussion system, was already attempting to accomplish this.

Then in 1995 you had perhaps the first online social network as we known them today, ClassMates.com, which the purpose was to allow school mates to connect.

What about social bookmarking sites?

While websites like Digg and StumbleUpon do have a social factor, I don’t think we can classify them on the same level as MySpace or Friendster. Mainly because they have different scopes: the first two aim to let people share and discover new websites and online stories; the second two aim to let people with similar interests connect online.

You could consider Digg and StumbleUpon a sub-category of social networking sites, for example. Social bookmarking sites is what I would call them, but you have many other definitions floating around, including community bookmarking sites and social news aggregators.

Centralized vs. Decentralized Social Networks

Now that we have a clear understanding of social networks and social bookmarking sites, let’s get back to the central question. What are the unspoken rules of these websites? When someone can promote his own content directly, and when one should refrain from doing so?

In order to draw the line that divides the accepted and unaccepted behaviors, I think that we need to classify those social networking sites under two different groups: centralized social networks and decentralized social networks.

Note: That is a classification that I came up with, so I am not sure if it has being used in the past or not, and if with the same meaning. Feel free to suggest other interpretations or to disagree with my theory in the comments below.

Centralized social networks are those where the actions of the single elements will inevitably affect the whole community. That is, all the actions flow to the center.

Digg is an example of a centralized social network. Every time you submit a story, digg or bury a story submitted from another user, ask for votes or try to manipulate the system in your favor, your actions are inevitably affecting the whole community.


That is because all members of Digg use the front page of the different sections to stay updated with the hot stories around the website.

The same principle applies to StumbleUpon. The central part of their system is the “Stumble!” button on the toolbar. Virtually all the members use that button to discover new and interesting websites. As a consequence, whenever you give a thumbs up or a thumbs down to a particular story, and whenever you share the stories you liked with friends, you are affecting the experience of all the other members of the community.

Twitter, on the other, is a decentralized social network. There is no central or core location where the actions of the single elements flow to. The system allows you to create you own micro communities, and your actions inside those communities will not affect people outside of them.


That is, you can decide who you follow, and other people in turn will decide if they want to follow you back or not. Suppose someone starts using Twitter solely to promote his own website. Users that are not following that person will not even notice what he is doing, and the ones that are following him can simply remove the follow to stop receiving his messages if they find them annoying. Finally, if someone likes to receive the promotional messages about the website of this person, he can keep following him.

Now you might ask me: so are all social bookmarking sites like Digg or Reddit centralized, and all standard social networks like MySpace and Facebook decentralized?

That is a good rule of thumb, but it is not always the case. Most social bookmarking sites are centralized, including Digg, Reddit, StumbleUpon, Mixx and Propeller. Some, however, are not. Del.icio.us is an example of a decentralized social bookmarking site. Provided you use the service to save your own bookmarks or to share them with friends, the actions of other users will not affect your experience.

As for standard social networking sites, I would say that most of them are indeed decentralized. Of course you have people trying to spam and manipulate those websites nonetheless, so the action of abusive users can end up affecting the whole community. But that is the exception and not the rule.


By now you should already know the answer to the original question. Whenever we talk about decentralized social networks, you can use them in whatever way you desire (well, excerpt for spamming). You can promote your website, yourself, express your opinions and what not. You will create your own micro community on those sites, and your actions there should not affect the other members, so they will hardly care.

Consider Twitter again. There are people who use it as a micro blogging tool. Others use it as an instant messaging utility. Others yet use the tool to promote their websites, and some people are even trying to sell their Twitter accounts on eBay! It is all good though, because each user has the autonomy to decide who he will follow, who will be able to follow him, and what micro communities he will join.

As for centralized networks like Digg or StumbleUpon, you will need to play under the rules of the community. Usually these rules will encourage you to be active in the community and to actually help it grow. Self promotion and system manipulation are frowned upon.

Practically speaking, can you get away with the occasional submission of your own stories? Yes. Can you use it over and over again solely to promote your own stuff? No.

Over to you

Do you agree that some social networks are centralized, while others are not? Do you think people should avoid completely promoting their own content, or there are exceptions?

Daniel Scocco is the author of Daily Blog Tips. You can stay updated with his blog tips by subscribing to his RSS Feed.

  1. I am trying to decide how best to use twitter. It can be frustrating with high volume bloggers to see a twitter about every post they make so I think for me it is coming down to choosing one of two options:

    1) Have one twitter account, use it for personal comments and occasionally mention a new blog post (i.e. the more interesting ones not just a repetition of someone else’s post).

    2) Have two twitter accounts, a personal account for communicating with other people in the gadget blogging community and a blog feed account where all blog posts are announced for anyone who is interested.

  2. Here’s my 2 cents as I was asked a similar question yesterday:

    Only social networking to me is all about the conversations…

    1. Add major VALUE to conversations
    2. Give first, Receive later
    3. Network with the INFLUENCER’S in your industry
    4. It’s okay to “act a fool” sometimes

    ONLY add your content when it’s relevant, if not don’t.

  3. Great post darren
    I will use all this info to use social bookmarking to promote my personal finances and wealth trainging blog. I currently don’t use social marketing but now I definately will
    Great post keep them coming
    My blog gets better every day because of your site

  4. Great post here, it really spots the nature of Twitter as “everything goes” – it is really hard to determine any unspoken rules followed by the entire community. I think no blogger can refrain from using it occasionally to promote his or her own blog post – but the good part is that once we find something unique and worth sharing elsewhere, we broadcast others’ content willingly as well.

    And you know, I think the same is pretty much true for StumbleUpon as well. As a heavy SU user I know that there are many people that promote their content only – but the surprise for them is that they don’t get anything by doing so. Only when you participate actively in the community life, vote for other users’ submissions and join the discussions, you will get a chance of having your own story popular. And that’s what I find particularly appealing: when you spam the community, you get nothing in return.

  5. Why not promote your own work

    You are not getting paid for helping others – in fact you are giving free labor

    so why not profit every once in a while

    imaging how many pageviews major sites have gotten for free as a result of free promotion from people that will never be thanked

  6. Darren,

    Good article. In regard to StumbleUpon, “I’ve heard” that if you continually submit from one blog, StumbleUpon will discontinue your ability to submit posts from that site until you start stumbling diversly.


  7. So why is it important to recognize whether a social network is centralized or decentralized? And why is it important to recognize what the unspoken rules are regarding usage of such networks?

    Regarding centralization, it seems to me such dichotomies are somewhat artificial. That is, we can recognize a continuum of sites where some are highly decentralized, others are centralized. It might be that to recognize the unspoken rules we need to understand the degree to which a social network is centralized.

    A decentralized network such as Twitter is self-policing. If you put a lot of rubbish out there, people will just not follow you. So it’s important to put stuff out that people want. In that case, it does not matter whether or not it is self-promoting. For example, Jason Calcanis, one of the most followed Twitterers has a lot of self-promoting posts to Twitter.

    In a centralized network, the policing is more top down, from the community. Wikipedia, not strictly a social network, is a good example. If rubbish is posted, it quickly gets removed. With social bookmarking, we expect that those users that excessively self-promote with content no-one wants will be quickly selected out by other users. The worst offenders may have their accounts removed.

    In effect, as information increases exponentially, we will see less tolerance for mindless self-promotion. However, those self-promoters who provide what people need or are looking for are less likely to be penalized.

  8. I am always confused with when to promote your own work and when not to. It seems like it’s frowned upon, but social bookmarking can bring in loads of traffic. I guess it all depends. I find that when others stumble my site, I get more than when a stumble is made by me. Same with Digg.

  9. I’ve found that on a site like Reddit, it’s fine to promote your own material, because users can quickly vote it up or down based on its merits and not based on your individual popularity within the site.

    On Digg and other sites that are based on having “friends” and tracking what those friends are digging, promoting your own stuff results in almost no traffic because you are seen as inauthentic.

  10. Great post. I especially liked the Twitter diagram. I’m visual, so that really helps to understand where it’s coming from.

  11. I’ve seen a pretty fair amount of both types of linking, but what you say makes enough sense to be rather obvious, and yet I was so buried in the idea of the subject that I didn’t catch these SUBTLE nuances.

    The key then: Participate. Though it brings no profit as noted in an earlier comment, the effort may bring the dividends in the end, much like social networking parties create ‘political’ connections in other industries.

    Thanks for the in depth answer that made the obvious it pretty clear Darren.

  12. @ShinyPlastic, both options will work. Just keep in mind why you want to use Twitter. Don’t do what other people are doing just because it seems logic.

    @Alejandro, good points.

  13. Great info – I’m new to all this social networking stuff and just starting to sort things out. This was a great help as is your blog. It’s these unspoken rules that at times confuse me. By reading and following, I’m learning!

  14. I think it is widely agreed that everybody hates spam and everybody wishes to decrease spam as much as possible. The social network and bookmarking sites play their role in allowing quality content to rise to the top and the blatant self promotion to sink.

    At blogbookmark.com we use a number of methods to help good content get prominent. Voting patterns and habits as well as submission practices are scrutinised. Good voting habits get rewarded with trust and thus reliability and bad habits get punished with post deletion and even banning. We know that our site can only have value to visitors if they get what they want.

    Some people want to fond content which is filtered and thus spares the reader having to view a succession of adverts, and posters want to know that they are getting a backlink of some value. It is in everyones interest to police poor content or blatant spam. Those who follow that unspoken rule… ie: give value are the ones who will do best.

    The distinction between cenmtralised and decentralised is a thin one I feel. The fact that much takes place behind the scenes in the admin area does negate much of the potential damage that can be caused by the unscrupulous.

    As for posting your own work…. cannot see anything wrong with that at all. Blowing ones own trumpet is fine if you don’t mind having a mute inserted occasionally.

  15. @Roger, I think understanding the dynamics of the social networks and their unspoken rules is important because it enables you to use them more efficiently, whatever you goal might be.

  16. I don’t think people should completely avoid promoting their own content. In the beginning, it’s important to promote your content on these sites because nobody else knows about your blog. After you build a steady following, and people start to notice your site, then others will be able to promote it for you. But until then, you are left to do a lot of the legwork yourself.

  17. I’m just not convinced that social networking sites are as helpful (over the long run) as they are be portrayed as.

    Live From Las Vegas
    The Masked Millionaire

  18. Miguel says: 05/20/2008 at 4:55 am

    What this suggests is that businesses should never “Digg” news that matters to them or talks about them? That doesn’t make sense to me. It would be unethical to have a built-in network that elevates “diggs,”but as long as you introduce a story and allow the story to increase in popularity in an organic matter, I don’t see the issue.

    If I am wrong, I’d love to hear how businesses should incorporate building social networks verus social bookmarking sites.

  19. I personally thing that twitter is the safest way to promote your blog if you have a big number of people following you. Why I am saying safe? Well, we all know that many websites were banned from different social media websites like stumbleupon and digg.

  20. @Muscle Post, I agree, that is what I mentioned that you do can get away with the occasional self promotion.

    @Masked Millionaire, take Zenhabits.net into consideration. He gained around 50k rss readers in 6 months. I think that half of them came via social media, because his blog was on Digg pretty much every other day.

  21. Thanks for posting this, there is so much you can talk about. I personally use Digg and StumbleUpon. Twitter I tried with no success. The Digg feature is great, however, I have so much friends that digg everything that I cannot have time to read. I’ve been taking them off my friends list, and every time I send something to shout, I only get a few people digging my stories. It is very difficult to find the right medium. The “you digg mine and I’ll digg yours” method goes out the window because I do read others and have a lot of interest, but others do not, e.g. just digg what interests them only.

    It’s amazing how people find time to do so much of this. I admit I do it for business, but I also read and digg stories I am genuinely interested in.

  22. @ Wick-edly Sent Scented Candles:

    I think your approach to Digg is what’s wrong with Digg and other social networking sites. Really, only front-page worthy content should be on the front page.

    Sure, I’ve manipulated the system and pushed stuff to the front page before to get those page views. It’s also backfired on some of my sites and irritated Diggers.

    I really don’t use Digg anymore because I’m really not interested in the community (something you should be IMO if you’re using it) and I found the traffic to be “low value” visitors. I’m much more interested in getting Google traffic, at least they’re looking for something relevant to the visit to my sites. Conversions and new readers are much more common from Google.

    To reiterate, if you’re Digging for profit, you’re Digging for the wrong reasons. If your content is Digg-worthy, go ahead and submit it – better yet, have a third-party review it and evaluate whether it should be submitted to Digg . . . then, let them submit it. The best Diggs happen naturally though.

  23. Thank you for the tips, great post…

  24. Stumbleupon have many users compare to digg.. I better focused on how to be on stumbleupon frontpage.

  25. I have been stopped using SU for a while,well,i am using twitter occasionally .My point of view is ,all social have their strength and weakness,it all depends how constantly you involve in,you can join all social network,but a simple question to you,do you have time on doing this?Stick one or two social network and build up your reputation,it is good enough.

  26. @Miguel, you can submit news that matter to you or talk about you, as long as you are not the author of that news.

  27. I want to utilize twitter more, but I dont’ want to be seen as a serial adder or worse a spammer.

    I have a pretty good ratio now, but not all of them are interested in my blog posts. How do I go and find relevant people.

    Keep in mind I would only consider following vloggers who happen to have a general interest blog like mine. Although I am planning a blog for a certain niche.

  28. What about a plugin that enables your blog to be part of a distributed (descentralized) social network ;) ? Minerva WordPress plugin ( http://minerva.sapiensworks.com ) adds this funcitonality to your blog with a single click.

    Basically, once you activated the plugin you are in an ad-hoc social network where you can add friends or create and manage your own networks.

    You don’t have to register anywhere and you don’t need an openid account, your blog is the only account you’ll need.

    This also means you have complete control over your privacy, an area that every ‘clasic’ social network likes to keep it gray (why does one social network have to know my name or my address or my birthday? Who can really guarantee that it won’t sell my private data or it won’t spam me?).

    And since many people already have a blog why shouldn’t they use that instead of registering to yet another social network?

  29. Interesting take, great article. Social networks will and already are a large part of many lives

  30. “Decentralised” is already used for social networks like blog networks that run across multiple websites (instead of sites like facebook which want you to give all your data and energy to their site). Might it be worth calling the networks “collecting” and “distributing” social networks instead?

  31. Thank you so much for this post! I’ve been struggling a lot lately about whether or not I should “stumble” posts of mine that I’m especially proud of. I blog on four different blogs at this point, and one of the sites allows me to earn bonuses based upon post views.

    I’m a frequent SU user, regularly stumbling other people’s pages, and was worried about a little self-promotion possibly turning off other stumblers.

  32. Interesting post, but again, what are the ‘rules’? I think I missed that part.

    Also, please don’t reference Wikipedia in an otherwise thoughtful essay, it just makes me groan.

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  34. Here is my feeling with social networks. To me they are like offline network functions. You go out to these places like Twitter, Facebook, Myspace, StumbleUpon, etc and become social. Meet and interact. I wouldn’t even try to promote or become sale-zy in my interactions. What I would try to do is form relationships, share, make funny comments when in the mood and invite people over to my blog to read my post. I’ll ask them to comment and dialogue over there and let them know other things I’m into. From there they can decide if I’m worth having around or not.

  35. I really Just wanted to say that I liked your blog & Thanks for keeping it on point!

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