In life, there are economic and legal contracts, and there are social contracts.  While most of the economic contracts are detailed in writing, and everyone (should) know the ground rules, social contracts are a bit different.  Social contracts are those agreements we have with each other about behavior, courtesy, “how things should be”, cultural norms and the lot.  When economic contracts are broken, there can be hard feelings, but there are also specific remedies, often cash based, to “right” to wrong.  By contrast, social contract violations have a much higher, and often a hard-to-calculate, price to pay.

When a social contract is broken, repair is much more difficult.  You can call it the systematic burning of social capital- of all those benefits, “chips” benefits of the doubt, etc. you have racked up over years, slowly ebbing away, the scoreboard resetting to zero, or below.  Hurt feelings, mistrust, seeds of doubt and more are left in their wake, even as people say “Well, I hope it was a one-time thing.”

Recently, I’ve seen a few people I know go through tough times when they’ve had a social contract violated.  Heck, I even had it happen with something silly.  Here’s my personal story:

I sit on several committees with our school district.  We’re going through tough economic times, none of it truly based on anything the school district itself can control, but generally on things like local housing prices and the tax base shifting, not in our favor.  I’m trying to do my part, both through donating money to our local education foundation which helps fund small innovation projects in the school, as well as do my part volunteering and more.  Through a mistake made by our local taxing authority as they switched collection agencies, we got a bill suggesting we had not paid some taxes back in 2010, with added penalties and interest.  Needless to say, I went to my accountant, wanting to understand and checking to see if this was the case.  It turns out that we did file properly and did not actually owe this money.  However, in the meantime, it felt like the school district, which I already know will be raising taxes in the next year to cover expenses, was now trying to get even more money from us, and it made me seriously consider moving across the border back into the neighboring State as soon as possible as a result.  I felt like I was constantly trying to stand up for what was right for the schools, and it felt like they were then coming after me, looking for even more.  I have deferred, for several years, doing things like having our property reassessed to see if we could drop our taxes because I knew the money was supporting the schools, but this experience made me think I needed to do just that.  In the end, everything is fine, but the bill had the consequence of burning a lot of that social capital built up over time.

(I should say that much of this capital was restored when a teacher, out of the blue, wrote us a terrific note about how much he enjoyed having my son in class.  It reconfirmed my long held belief that despite all the heart ache and financial troubles the school district is having, it still has a remarkable group of caring educators, and they need all the support the community can give them.)

How often does something like this happen, that as businesses or individuals, we don’t even know about?  How often does someone send out the wrong email, or say the wrong thing to the wrong person, or otherwise end up disappointing or burning hard-won reputation “points” that took a long time to earn?  When does that unreturned phone call or failure to follow up on something hurt us more than any direct action would?

As we move further into this area of constant connectedness, our reputations become our currency more than ever before.  In order to do business with people we may never meet in person, we have to establish a sense of trust, and every time that trust is violated, we make it worse for ourselves, but also for the next person in line, who suffers from our actions disintegrating the trust in those “internet people” as a whole.  I guess what I’m trying to say is it’s one thing to make mistakes yourself, but it’s another to make mistakes and de fact leaving them for others to try to clean up.  In a hyperconnected world with social currency, I think we’re going to find, over time, we have an obligation to live up to our social contracts, not only for our own benefit, but equally for the sake of the ecosystem and those that come after us.

It’s becoming an interesting world, where we want human contact and we want to trust people, but experience tells us that people are unreliable and fallible.  We want to balance the ability to do business globally and locally, but there’s still some assurance about being able to go to someone’s office and knock on the door when needed.  There’s a certain amount of responsibility we have to those we interact with in person, in a way that doesn’t always seem to be equally true online.  Yet our online reputations may be one of our most important, yet most fragile assets, easily damaged by others, as I’m sure hundreds of Ebay sellers already know.

In the end, we have to be careful with the hit points we willfully take to our reputation and to the earned trust that fuels our social contracts.  Once that bank account is empty, it’s not so easily replenished, and starting over in the age of the internet is much more difficult now that your actions follow you everywhere.

Moving out of town is no longer an easy option, and that black cloud resides in the Cloud forever.