Makin’ Whuffie: Knoxville’s Cache of Social Capital

Laura Bower Local Living, Social Networking 15 Comments


Contrary to popular belief, social media isn’t the end of civilization as we know it. Facebook didn’t put a stop to interpersonal communication. LinkedIn doesn’t negatively impact the vital, vibrant pulse of the business community. Twitter hasn’t replaced the kitchen table or the corner bar for meaningful human interaction. Rather, these social networking platforms and others have heightened connectivity worldwide and right here in our own backyard.  

Some folks might consider Knoxville an improbable hub of frenetic digital activity. I beg to differ.

While I don’t profess to be an expert on social media, I am an avid practitioner. What I’m seeing first hand is an explosion of conversation, a word-of-mouth revolution that is bringing people together from different backgrounds, diverse professions and polar-opposite points of view. It’s global. It’s national. And it’s local. Social media is alive and thriving in our beloved borough, nestled in the friendly foothills of the Smoky Mountains. From Farragut to Five Points, downtown to the burbs, area businesses, entrepreneurs, individuals and organizations are talking … and tweeting a lot.

Aubreys - KSMA

Talking on Twitter is called “tweeting,” and names on Twitter are “Twitter handles” preceded by an “@” symbol.  For instance, I’m “@laurabower.” So, in the spirit of the Twittersphere, that’s how I’ll refer to my tweeps heretofore. By “tweeps,” I mean the folks with whom I have a relationship on Twitter. Tweeps speak in 140-character sound bites in an endless looping feed of chatter. But these tiny tweets of conversation are only the beak of the bird, so to speak. I’m making new friends and rediscovering old ones; I’m meeting fascinating people and broadening my personal and professional network exponentially, all through Twitter. What I’m really doing is making whuffie!

In her book, The Whuffie Factor, Tara Hunt elaborates on the term “whuffie” coined by Cory Doctorow in his futuristic novel, Down and Out in the Magic Kingdom. Hunt defines whuffie as the “residual outcome — the currency — of your reputation.” Doctorow, who also created the popular blog Boing Boing, says whuffie will be the only currency used in the future — dollars, Euros, etc. will simply disappear. In online communities as well as IRL (in real life), whuffie is a “core component of connection,” according to Hunt. Whuffie is both intangible and invaluable. Your whuffie is “weighted according to your interactions with communities and individuals.” Hunt goes on to explain that the way to accrue whuffie is to “be nice, be networked or be notable.”


Within Knoxville’s close-knit, albeit far-flung, Twitter community, whuffie is generated on a continual basis. It’s digital street cred. It’s the prana, or energy, that fuels our organic connections to each other.

For example, I started following @saulyoung, a photo-journalist for the Knoxville News Sentinel, at the recommendation of @MikeSCohen, a senior executive with Ackermann PR. I knew Cohen IRL but only knew of Young from his byline in the paper. However, I went on a virtual road trip with him to Bonnaroo this year, via Twitter and his photo blog, Forgive us our lens. Later, we met in person. But I’d already formed an opinion of him as being witty, clever and kind through our Twitter friendship. Young was nominated as Best Tweeter in the Sentinel’s Best of East Tennessee poll, and the honor is well deserved — he’s got whuffie!


From @saulyoung’s network, I started following @CocoHolder, a local businesswoman and civic leader. Turns out we’ve known each other IRL for years. Twitter served to reacquaint us. She chooses not to use her actual name on Twitter, so I’ll honor her anonymity here as well. She’s wicked funny and sharp as a tack, and we found out just how much we have in common through our “tweetship.” @CocoHolder and @saulyoung have oodles of whuffie, or social capital, due to their positive social networking interactions.

“In the gift economy, the more you give away, the more whuffie you gain, which is completely opposite from currency in the market economy,” says Tara Hunt. It’s like online karma, in a sense. @knoxlight is another Knoxville tweeter; she’s also an attorney and the head of a local nonprofit organization. As with @CocoHolder, @knoxlight was a business acquaintance before Twitter. Now she’s a friend and a mentor, because she innately understands the concept of whuffie.

There are two organized groups that have formed in the last several months, devoted to sharing and promoting social media in Knoxville:  Knoxville Social Media Association and Social Media Club of Knoxville, both of which host speakers and events to build community and generate whuffie. In fact, KSMA and SMC have joined forces with Knoxville Overground to sponsor the Knoxville Twestival, part of an international char­i­ta­ble event that harnesses the local power of Twitter in com­mu­ni­ties all around the world.


But for those of you who say, “I don’t care what Ashton Kutcher had for breakfast,” an inference that Twitter is somehow trivial or superficial, let me remind you of the post-election revolution in Iran that rode a wave of world awareness via the Twittersphere. Or the deaths of Michael Jackson and Ted Kennedy, broken on Twitter by multiple news sources that tapped into our shared consciousness and mutual grief. Then there’s the much-ballyhooed social media strategy successfully employed by the Obama campaign, as part of a grassroots, word-of-mouth political movement.

On the local front, @jamiescoop and @gpatterson12 have provided bleeding-edge coverage of the Christian/Newsome trial via Twitter, integrating it with streaming video, blogging, traditional print and broadcast stories. This shared experience has transcended real and virtual boundaries to touch everyone in Knoxville who cares about what happens here.


I’ve even forged deeper relationships with office co-workers through Twitter. @iberrychick has provided technical assistance with Twitter platforms; both she and @audrehepbrn2007 have attended social media events with me. Because we work in different areas of our company, we would never have interacted on such a personal level without Twitter.

“Tweet-ups” are face-to-face meet-ups for tweeps. One local group, the Just Us Leeg, hosts get-togethers for like-minded geeks every other week. Supporting a Web site and blog series, JUL seeks to “become a social media powerhouse in Knoxville and answer technical questions.” The ranks of JUL’s self-proclaimed “chic geeks” include @thesnarkyone, @bc42 and @suriehl. Their tweet-ups are more laid back than those of KSMA and SMC, but equally rich in whuffie.


I follow “twitterati” in Chicago, New York, London and Hong Kong. What’s happening in Knoxville is not unique — it’s a microcosm of a global phenomenon. Remember Hunt’s mantra for growing whuffie: be nice, be networked or be notable. It’s a low-cost, high-energy strategy for creating community and affecting change.

Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs dictates that people meet their most basic needs first: food, water, shelter. It’s a theory about what motivates human behavior. According to Maslow, after physiological and safety needs are met, people seek love, acceptance and belonging. Online communities like Twitter are one way to fulfill that need for belonging. In The Whuffie Factor, Tara Hunt highlights four stages of community development:

  • feelings of membership
  • feelings of influence
  • integration and fulfillment of needs
  • shared emotional connection

Hunt also notes that community means different things in different contexts. Cohesiveness is a relative concept. But mojo is universal.


Knoxville is a patchwork quilt of close-knit communities, but these groups don’t always mix well with each other. Twitter bridges the gap between West Knoxville and East Knoxville, between Old City java heads and Atomic City quant jocks. Twitter unites UT students, mommy bloggers, news hounds and sports junkies. It’s accessible, convenient and free. All you have to do is participate. @unmarketing, a Toronto tweepster, puts it this way: “Tweet. Reply. Retweet. Repeat.” Embrace the chaos. Let go of control. And spread the word — Knoxville’s got whuffie. Who knew?


All photos copyright © 2009 Saul Young, Katie Granju, Cathy McCaughan, Carrie Thompson, All Rights Reserved.

Comments 15

  1. Hi Laura,

    Great article. You did make one glaring oversight. @justusleeg has assembled a healthy social network via Twitter that meets regularly. I’m proud to be a part of this rag tag group and I encourage you to check them out.



  2. This is a good article. I had read Doctorow’s story not too long ago and really loved the concept of wuffie.
    Keep up the good work.
    This has been, as always, suriehl

  3. How funny that I knew exactly what you meant by “Whuffie” (I thought I was the only one who read that story) and am really going to have to go and find Tara Hunt’s book…

    Thanks for using the photos of me in the article 😉

  4. Pingback: Tweets that mention Makin' Whuffie: Knoxville's Cache of Social Capital | Knoxify --

  5. Post

    Suzy T, there’s a reason I put your picture under “nice, notable and networked,” and Barry, your face has whuffie written all over it!

  6. Just finished Dan Brown’s new book, The Lost Symbol, and was delighted by his reference to Twitter, Google, Wikipedia and social media in general as “a web of interconnected minds.” Seems the notion of whuffie is gaining traction. Connectivity, community and trust are the only forms of capital that really matter.

  7. Pingback: Social Media for Local Networking - How it Actually Works – (Part 1) | Lead Page Profit System | Small Business Profit System

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