December 31, 2007

social objects for beginners


As y'all will know, I'm fond of talking about "Social Objects" and how they pertain to "Marketing 2.0". Even so, some people still get confused by what a Social Object actually is. So I wrote the following to clarify some more:

The Social Object, in a nutshell, is the reason two people are talking to each other, as opposed to talking to somebody else. Human beings are social animals. We like to socialize. But if think about it, there needs to be a reason for it to happen in the first place. That reason, that "node" in the social network, is what we call the Social Object.

Example A. You and your friend, Joe like to go bowling every Tuesday. The bowling is the Social Object.

Example B. You and your friend, Lee are huge Star Wars fans. Even though you never plan to do so, you two tend to geek out about Darth Vader and X-Wing fighters every time you meet. Star Wars is the Social Object.

Example C. You’ve popped into your local bar for a drink after work. At the bar there’s some random dude, sending a text on this neat-looking cellphone you’ve never seen before. So you go up to him and ask him about the phone. The random dude just LOVES his new phone, so has no trouble with telling a stranger about his new phone for hours on end. Next thing you know, you two are hitting it off and you offer to buy him a beer. You spend the rest of the next hour geeking out about the new phone, till it’s time for you to leave and go dine with your wife. The cellphone was the social object.

Example D. You’re a horny young guy at a party, in search of a mate. You see a hot young woman across the room. You go up and introduce yourself. You do not start the conversation by saying, “Here’s a list of all the girls I've gone to bed with, and some recent bank statements showing you how much money I make. Would you like to go to bed with me?” No, something more subtle happens. Basically, like all single men with an agenda, you ramble on like a yutz for ten minutes, making small talk. Until she mentions the name of her favorite author, Saul Bellow. Halleluiah! As it turns out, Saul Bellow happens to be YOUR FAVORITE AUTHOR as well [No, seriously. He really is. You’re not making it up just to look good.]. Next thing you know, you two are totally enveloped in this deep and meaningful conversation about Saul Bellow. “Seize The Day”, "Herzog", “Him With His Foot In His Mouth” and “Humbolt’s Gift”, eat your heart out. And as you two share a late-night cab back to her place, you're thinking about how Saul Bellow is the Social Object here.

Example E. You’re an attractive young woman, married to a very successful Hedge Fund Manager in New York’s Upper East Side. Because your husband does so well, you don’t actually have to hold down a job for a living. But you still earned a Cum Laude from Dartmouth, so you need to keep your brain occupied. So you and your other Hedge Fund Wife friends get together and organise this very swish Charity Ball at the Ritz Carleton. You’ve guessed it; the Charity Ball is the Social Object.

Example F. After a year of personal trauma, you decide that yes, indeed, Jesus Christ is your Personal Saviour. You’ve already joined a Bible reading class and started attending church every Sunday. Next thing you know, you’ve made a lot of new friends in your new congregation. Suddenly you are awash with a whole new pile of Social Objects. Jesus, Church, The Bible, the Church Picnics, the choir rehearsals, the Christmas fund drive, the cookies and coffee after the 11 o'clock service, yes, all of them are Social Objects for you and new friends to share.

Example G. You’ve been married for less than a year, and already your first child is born. In the last year, you and your spouse have acquired three beautiful new Social Objects: The marriage, the firstborn, and your own new family. It’s what life’s all about.

There. I’ve given you seven examples. But I could give THOUSANDS more. But there’s no need to. The thing to remember is, Human beings do not socialize in a completely random way. There’s a tangible reason for us being together, that ties us together. Again, that reason is called the Social Object. Social Networks form around Social Objects, not the other way around.

Another thing to remember is the world of Social Objects can have many layers. As with any complex creature, there can be more than one reason for us to be together. So anybody currently dating a cute girl who’s into not just Saul Bellow, but also into bowling and cellphones and Star Wars and swish Charity Balls as well, will know what I mean.

The final thing to remember is that, Social Objects by themselves don’t matter in the grand scheme of things. Sure, it’s nice hanging out with Lee talking about Star Wars. But if Star Wars had never existed, you’d probably still enjoy each other’s company for other reasons, if they happened to present themselves. Human beings matter. Being with other human beings matter. And since the dawn of time until the end of time, we use whatever tools we have at hand to make it happen.

[Afterthought:] As I'm fond of saying, nothing about Social Objects is rocket science. Then again, there's nothing about "Love" that is rocket science, either. That doesn't mean it can't mess with your head. Rock on.

[Link:] Mark Earls has some nice thoughts on this, as well. "Things change because of people interacting with other people, rather than technology or design really doing things to people."

[N.B. "Social Objects" is a term I did not coin myself, but was turned onto by the anthropolgist and Jaiku founder, Jyri Engestrom.]

Posted by hugh macleod at December 31, 2007 12:25 AM | TrackBack

Hugh I think people will enjoy these examples . . . the thing I love about examples is that you have to go through the filter of imagination: what does this mean (if anything) for people

Posted by: David Brain at December 31, 2007 1:06 AM this post about social objects is now the social object.. :)


Posted by: c5 at December 31, 2007 2:06 AM

Social Object = Common Ground. Non?

Posted by: Jeff at December 31, 2007 2:10 AM

Ah yes...the "l" word again.

Isn't it all about love?

Posted by: Sue W at December 31, 2007 2:42 AM

On the flip side of the above examples, you have the odd situation where someone you don't get on with likes the same things as you do. For some reason, we seem to find it a little disconcerting when a disliked acquaintance has the same political views, taste in music, fashion sense and other shared social interest as we do.

Online social networks make these similarities way more obvious, which is another way in which they've changed the way people see each other.

Posted by: Jane at December 31, 2007 2:47 AM

and, humans being human, we can turn it around - that young man will probably quickly realise that that "girl who’s into not just Saul Bellow, but also into bowling and cellphones and Star Wars and swish Charity Balls" is really, really cute, no matter what the first impression ;)
Social objects in common make relationships. :)

Posted by: Lea de Groot at December 31, 2007 3:01 AM

As much sense as it makes, if that's all a social object is, then how exactly do you make such a thing indespensible? Or get over the hump how to get the first person to like it (and then the second)?

Posted by: Rachel at December 31, 2007 3:02 AM

I can attest to a baby being a social object. One of the strongest ones I've ever encountered. Stronger, even, than an iPhone. Heh.

Seriously, what is it about babies that gets everyone to go nuts?

Posted by: Robert Scoble at December 31, 2007 3:30 AM

I think I'd amend that.

Social Objects are formed around purpose, or are created by people acting on purpose. Social networks (that thrive) are built by providing the means and the field for people to address that purpose.

Social networks that do not have purpose will wither and founder ... after all there's an infinite market for meaning, not messages, as some wag once put it.

Posted by: Jon Husband at December 31, 2007 3:59 AM

Who can ever get enough of Bowling for Bellow?

Posted by: Meg at December 31, 2007 8:29 AM

My favorite social object to hate: blood relation.

Posted by: coco_beans at December 31, 2007 8:38 AM

It would be easy to consider the quality of the social object in terms of its stimulus, provocation, aesthetics or even bling, but in truth far more derives from its capacity for people to be creative around it and particularly to invent judgements and opinions as a basis for debate with others. The ensuing delight derived from conviviality & controversy is a heady mix and without discounting bowling, is probably stronger with the bible.

Posted by: Richard Millwood at December 31, 2007 10:04 AM

Of course, for the English, the default Social Object is the weather ;)

Posted by: Rachel Clarke at December 31, 2007 10:07 AM

Genius. Just what we all needed: a simple clear exposition of the idea

Posted by: Mark E at December 31, 2007 11:49 AM

Good luck with the 'Jesus Christ is a social object' line :-)

It does seem to beg the question about whether social objects can be entirely abstract, and whether they need to have common (socially defined) meaning.

Interesting also to think of the subclassifcation of such objects on a continuum of human needs. Presumably, the hunt is more primal than the social objects around sharing and family, which is still more primal than the needs around self-expression and growth.

Does the guy with the fancy phone buy it in part because he can sees it as a potential social object around self-image and prestige?

Posted by: Tom Hopkins at December 31, 2007 12:26 PM

Rachel wrote, "if that's all a social object is, then how exactly do you make such a thing indespensible?"

Who says it must be indispensable? At the kitchen at work, I interact with people over dispensable social objects all the time--magazines, a tub of soup, etc.

Rachel further writes, "Or get over the hump how to get the first person to like it (and then the second)?"

Ahhh, there's the rub. I think that's the most important question. And it's the question all marketers face, isn't it?

Posted by: Brent P. Newhall at December 31, 2007 1:27 PM

Re: Tom's suggestion of phone buying motivation.

Think the guy with the fancy phone buys it because others around him buy it (or want to, or he thinks they do).

Posted by: Mark E at December 31, 2007 1:50 PM

I had my own social object moment this Christmas. My wife's sister's boyfriend and I have nothing in common. Every holiday or other times we meet, we say hi and he falls asleep on the couch.

They recently purchased a 10 acre farm (my wife and I purchased one a couple of years ago), and they have two horses. He repaired the barn and put up fencing. We walked the property and talked fencing.

It was the best visit with him after all these years.

They were kind enough to get us gate latch for a gift, like the one they have, like the one I had admired as we inspected the fencing.

Posted by: Scott Smith at December 31, 2007 2:04 PM

Happy Downunder New Year from Australia..!

Please let me be the last to congratulate you on a great 2007 blog. And the first to congratulate you ahead of 2008's. I love it.

Really, I checkout read your blog most days and it give me a link back to sanity.

As a Brit moved downunder to Melbourne we're the first to get New Year.

So Happy New Year from here. The Sydney fireworks were amazing, check out the pictures.

All the best for 2008.


Posted by: Andrew at December 31, 2007 2:58 PM

Ok, so if I kick you in the butt because you've just turned "social objects" into social objects, hoping to get you away from the computer for a while so you can make things like FRESH AIR, MOUNTAINS, HOT DOG STANDS, COFFEEHOUSE FILMS, and things you have to live, eat, breathe, drink and touch, into social objects, would my "kick in your butt" become a social object, as well?

Posted by: Sam Freedoms Internet Marketing Controversy Blog at December 31, 2007 3:31 PM

Sam, are you being CONTROVERSIAL again? Dang!

Posted by: hugh macleod at December 31, 2007 3:42 PM

Social objects don't even have to be real things. Christmas, New Year's Eve etc. are also social objects. In a way, anything two people can talk about because they know something about it is a social object, and this can be as simple as the weather. And if you think about it like this, it becomes OBVIOUS that we need social objects for relationships to other people, because if we have no social objects, we just have nothing to talk about. Apart from that, I bet the chances to meet a hot young woman at a party whose favorite author is Saul Bellow are somewhere around zero.

Posted by: Phil at December 31, 2007 4:08 PM

There's something about the social object concept that makes me think we're mistaking the finger pointing at the moon for the moon itself. (I haven't read Engestrom, just your own helpful illuminations of the concept). Social objects are the particular manifestation of shared meaning, right? So that suggests there's a drive underlying all these manifestations....that the social object is not, in itself, the drive. The need for meaning...specifically shared a deep human impulse that will, invariably, manifest in some form or another. If not this social object, another. Social networks like Facebook are simply evidence of that quest. Aren't they simply forums where the quest for shared meaning can coalesce and result in manifestation (social objects)? People tend to be conscious of the social object more than they are of the underlying impulse that led them to it. The search for meaning--a purpose that radiates beyond the limited confines of the self--lies at the center of all human interaction. It seems to me that identifying the nature of that impulse, what sort of meaning is in play at any given time, is really important....and helps us create brilliant social objects to express it, specifically. I imagine that what attracts you to Saul Bellow is the way he expresses his own constant, agonizing quest for meaning...a way of expressing that angst that is similar to your own, that allows you to join him, rather than simply watch with admiration. And so the woman who likes Bellow too must want to soak in that particular bath of meaning as well...which is what attracts you to her. It's the underlying taste for that particular form of meaning that being an SB fan indicates, and to which you respond. Henderson the Rain King isn't the point. Neither is Saul Bellow. What is the point is that you and this woman share a taste for that particular worldview. That shared taste promises more social object creation between you two in the future. What I'm saying is that I think it's worth understanding at all times what form of meaning a social object is that future social objects can can be created in its wake. Good Lord. This is the longest post I've ever written. Over.

Posted by: Rachel Bellow at December 31, 2007 4:16 PM

Well, yes... just what I needed. I appreciate your taking time to clarify the concept of social objects. As you know, I was off the mark several degrees. Happy New Year.

Posted by: Dennis Freire at December 31, 2007 5:13 PM

Great post, Hugh.

Speaking of Social Objects, one of my favorites is Orson Scott Card's Ender's Game. In the Ender series, OSC posits that we're connected to other people and things in this universe by way of philotic twines: invisible yet tangible connections based on the mutual love we share for each other or for, as you put it, social objects.

Rachel Bellow's comment was fantastic, describing the yearning to find in another that which we ourselves grok. As C.S. Lewis put it: "Friendship is born at that moment when one person says to another: What! You, too? Thought I was the only one."

Posted by: Cheekier MeSly at December 31, 2007 6:47 PM

If social objects are actually the indicator of a search for shared meaning - as Rachel suggests - can we revisit what shared meaning means in the age of the network.

Wittgenstein thought that learning to take part in social interaction was about learning a common language of meaning (language games).

What does that mean in a world where meaning can be shared between people anywhere in the world instantaneously? And people can simultaneously belong to multiple tribes? Surely this is another example of how the internet isn't democratising but rather is decentralising - allowing groups to form free-form around communities of meaning, wherever they are?

So now we're not all learning one language game but multiple games across different communities of interest.

And with that, over to the most abstract of social objects: happy new year!

Posted by: Tom Hopkins at December 31, 2007 7:32 PM

With these definitions facebook itself sucks as a social object, not so bad (if you can weed throught the crap) as a place to share social object and therefore forming social networks.

Tom Hopkins- My only thought on the Jesus Christ is yes "he/it" is a social object, merely a social object I don't think so. This requires more thought on my end though.

Rachel Clarke - the weather is a social object in most areas in most cultures I have been in.

Happy New Year all! Enjoy some good friends and wine! Maybe '08 I can get some Blue Monster shipped to me! Cheers!

Posted by: Michael at December 31, 2007 7:38 PM

Nicely done, even better with all the conversation around this. Which is indeed the social part of the blog object isn't it? It is also a Western thing to make objects and definitions.

Happy new year!

Posted by: Steve Sherlock at December 31, 2007 7:58 PM

Great discussion. I have recently been splashing the word "Social Object" all about because a lady I respect very much, Leah Jones wrote in her fabulous blog on Dec 18th that Singelringen is a "Social Object": Leah in Chicago. Leah linked your name. So I endeavored to look up your previous posts on Social Objects as I find the topic fascinating. Thank you for the further clarification here.

For those of you who haven't heard of it yet:
Singelringen ("The Single Ring" in Swedish) is a unisex ring that serves to remind the single wearer that they are already complete; while open to possibilities. This distinctive turquoise and silver ring is worn on the right hand or neck chain and is easily identifiable from across a room. Each ring has a unique registration number that provides access to the Singelringen Global Community. First introduced in Scandinavia in 2005, Singelringen is now worn by more than 150,000 singles in over 20 countries around the world. I am the agent for North and Central America.

Posted by: Linda Sherman at December 31, 2007 8:25 PM

So when two people first meet at a party and they don't have anything to say to each other they ask stupid questions trying to find something IN COMMON to talk about?

Posted by: angela penny at December 31, 2007 9:24 PM

Hugh, of course one of your favourite social objects is the fountain pen! nudge.

Rebecca Caroe

Posted by: Rebecca Caroe at December 31, 2007 11:37 PM


Discover photography as a Social Object. You have an undiscovered talent for it. nudge.

Posted by: Dave Armstrong at January 2, 2008 2:36 AM

I forgot to mention - start with photographs of women you have just met. They love it. You will make new friends. nudge.

Best Wishes,

Posted by: Dave Armstrong at January 2, 2008 2:39 AM

Great concept. I'm gonna have to go into your archives and dig up some posts about social objects now that you've provided this intro.

Posted by: T at January 2, 2008 7:05 AM

Interesting as always, Hugh.
So let's try it on with say, Hollywood Actors. Are they social objects themselves or simply set up to be purveyors of social objects? And, with the advent of deep social networking, (which better connect social classes), will we see the demise of Hollywood --to be replaced by connections to people we are more likely to respect and like? I guess my friends on Facebook won't likely be featured in a blockbuster but I'm nearly as entertained for twice as long watching them on YouTube clips as I am in the movie theater paying $29 for popcorn. Then again, well-written storylines rule, don't they? So, does all this mean that "storylines" are the fabric for all social objects?
(in which case, we need to get the WGAE Writers Strike resolved! All hail the story writers!)

PS: It's so cute that Robert Scoble is so smitten with his baby. (per his comment above)

Posted by: Kris Fuehr at January 3, 2008 12:21 AM

Object or construct? Just scanning the remarks and there seems to be some confusion here.

And I think it's an important distinction. An object must be interpreted and mutually agreed upon. We may all agree an iphone is an amazing object to be discussed and mulled over.

But what if you don't recognize it to begin with?

Then perhaps there is no reason for interaction. No discussion. Or maybe a different reason to interact.

'You've never seen one of these? Well then let me show you!'

The construct, it seems to me, is the thing. If you can construct a reality that is generally agreed upon, then there would be plenty of social objects (phones, babies, books) that are worth while.

A more powerful marketing strategy it seems to me, is to create an object worthy enough to be introduced into already agreed upon social construct.

The construct provides a convenient reason for the social object to be discussed.

My personal experience: This Christmas was EXACTLY the right social construct for the introduction of the iphone, the ipod and a myriad of other 'objects' to a wider audience...including my parents. Powerful stuff.

It's sort of like a marriage provides the reason for a baby to be introduced? And baby without a marriage is associated with an altogether different kind of construct...

Posted by: Sean Cayton at January 3, 2008 4:29 AM

AH! I understand now! Thanks for this post. ;D

Posted by: Mari at January 3, 2008 6:37 PM