January 16, 2008

the social marker- the "social object" on steroids


You all will be familiar with my writings on Social Objects by now.

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.
Increasingly I've been using a term, "Social Marker" to describe a certain type of Social Object. I've found it especially useful for explaining certain ideas to marketing folk.

When two people meet, the first thing they try to do is place each other in context. A social context. So they insert some hints into the conversation:

"I used to know your Uncle Bob."
"I work at Saatchi & Saatchi's.
"I've been reading Malcolm Gladwell for years."
"I'm a member of Soho House."
"I was reading Doc Searls' blog the other day."
"I was college roommates with your ex-girlfriend."
"I was sampling some fine Islay single malts the other evening."
"I bought some Versace shirts from Barney's last week."
"You're a Red Sox fan too?"
"I think Andy Warhol is overrated."
"I think Led Zeppelin is underrated."
"I was having dinner with some guys from Goldman Sachs."
"My wife thinks the Upper West Side is really good for schools."
"San Tropez is too expensive in February."
Let's say, for sake of argument, that you never heard of me before, but I knew all about you. And let's say, for example, you were also the world's greatest Boston Red Sox fan. And let's say I saw you in a coffee shop. And let's say I went over to your table, like a stalker [You don't know me from Adam, remember].

And let's say the first thing out of mouth was a short list of five names:

"Carl Yastrzemski. Carlton Fisk. Rico Petrocelli. Fred Lynn. Dwight Evans."

Yes, granted, that would be pretty strange behavior. That being said, because you knew every single factoid about the 1975 World Series there was to know, you would know exactly who and what I was talking about. Right away, you would know that we shared a context, even though I had only given you five names and nothing else. Which would make you more likely to invite me to sit down at your table and start a conversation.

Every ecosystem has its own, unique set of social markers- nouns that serve as social shorthand, stuff you use to let other people know ASAP that you know what you're talking about, that you are a fellow "citizen" in a certain space.

When I visit San Francisco I am always surprised how often the name of my friend, Robert Scoble comes up in random conversation, unprompted by myself. Why is that? Why is he so well known? Is his blog REALLY that good? Is he REALLY that smart and interesting?

Well, I could give a whole stack of reasons to explain why I think Robert's success is well-deserved. But one major reason that his blog's traffic is so high, and his name so well-known, is that his personal brand has somehow managed to become a Social Marker inside the Silicon Valley ecosystem. The same could also be said for Mike Arrington, Loic Le Meur or Mark Zuckerberg. Dropping their names into random conversations allows people to quickly and efficiently contextualize themselves.

Something similar happened to me a couple of years ago. A artist friend of mine was hitting on a girl, another artist, in a bar in New York's Lower East Side. For whatever reason, the subject of "Art and the Internet" came up. So my friend started telling the girl about this other friend of his, this guy living over in England, who drew these weird little cartoons on the back of business cards...

"That is SO unoriginal," the girl interrupts, rolling her eyeballs. "Who does he think he is, Hugh MacLeod?"

Heh. Small world. Yes. She was using me as a Social Marker.

Social Markers are a prime form of social shorthand, that people use to STAKE OUT the ecosystem they're occupying. So why do I find this such a useful term for marketers? Because obviously, if your product is a Social Marker in your industry ecosystem [the way the iPhone is in the mobile world, or Starbucks is in the coffee world, or Amazon is the book world, or Google is in the search world, or Whole Foods is in the supermarket world, or Virgin is in the airline world, or English Cut in the bespoke world etc etc] you will have an AMAZING competitive advantage to call your own.

And if the product your company makes is not a Social Marker, I guess the first question would be, "Why the hell not?" Quit your job and start over.

[Update:] Neal makes a really good point in the comments: Really interesting thought, Hugh, but bad products could also be a social marker - "ah, yes, I was ripped off by that building company too" or "oh - you'll be disappointed by that mobile phone as well". I'd suggest there's also a variable here about positive v negative that you should think about before quitting that job :)

[Bonus Link] US News & World Report: "Selling in a Post-Meatball Era- The quest for 'social objects' that create their own Web buzz." Seth Godin in a great interview to plug his new book, Meatball Sundae. "Social Object" given a small mention etc.

Posted by hugh macleod at January 16, 2008 5:37 AM | TrackBack

This is very interesting and I agree. I certainly am not a business person, and my leanings tend to be more of the psychology of things. However, with that in mind here's my take on it.
We all need a frame of reference, it seems to be how our brains are wired. We connect things like an equation, however, we must first have certain items in place. Depending upon what we put on these "things", or what society puts on them will determine their popularity. A lot of times it seems it has nothing to do with the talents of someone, but rather where they fit in, or IF they fit in.
My question is, in knowing how fickle society can be, is the success or failure of someone or some-'thing' merely because they or "it" just happened to be at the right place, at the right time???
Hugh, thank you so much for helping keep my brain active through your writing and your drawing.
I wish you a very calm and restful new year.

Posted by: Lynn (oddthomas) at January 16, 2008 7:03 AM

very useful concept, thankyou!

Posted by: John Dumbrille at January 16, 2008 8:00 AM

Love the new term "Social Marker", you never cease to amaze me with the simplicity and depth of your ideas, If I was a business prof. I would make your blog an obligatory read for the students.

Posted by: Baher at January 16, 2008 8:33 AM

Really interesting thought, Hugh, but bad products could also be a social marker - "ah, yes, I was ripped off by that building company too" or "oh - you'll be disappointed by that mobile phone as well". I'd suggest there's also a variable here about positive v negative that you should think about before quitting that job :)

Posted by: Neil Mc at January 16, 2008 8:57 AM

Neil, you make a VERY good point. Thanks for that :)

Posted by: hugh macleod at January 16, 2008 9:03 AM

It's amazing how many people in my circle, upon seeing my business card, say "that's such a cool 'Hugh card'."

It's rare that I have to explain who drew the card, or what the context is.

Posted by: Robert Scoble at January 16, 2008 9:08 AM

I long for the day when I can hit on girls by talking about bloggers.

Posted by: Mike Abundo at January 16, 2008 9:42 AM

Heh Hugh, not to bust out the 'dumb old marketer' gig here, but to me, this sounds a heck of a lot like branding. I think that social marker is an evolution on that, but from an academic perspective, it's not far from one of the most basic elements of community, the shared context. I might say "Campagnolo" (or Campy, and then we're really on the same page) and because they've done such a good job branding, and because you and I have a shared context w/ in a community (you'd also be a cyclist).

Posted by: Dana VanDen Heuvel at January 16, 2008 9:56 AM

Interesting points, Dana. Funny how both "branding" and "stake out" are originally ranching terms. One's about the cattle, and the other's about the actual ranch.

Posted by: hugh macleod at January 16, 2008 10:30 AM

@baher Last semester I taught a course on Social Media at the U of Miami, and Gapingvoid was required reading ... despite the potty-mouthed cartoons :)

@Dana Brands have spent $$$ advertising and direct-marketing us in a unilateral way to tell us how we should think about brands. I think the point now is to empower and enable consumers to talk about brands and products on their own terms. Part of this may require creating and designing spaces and environments where people may do so.

When you speak about a brand with a friend, you're creating a virtual triangular space between your friend, the brand and yourself. If in addition you have the brand's product with you, this space becomes a three-dimensional prism. If additional friends are there with you, this space grows into a more complex form, where multiple conversations are going on about the product and brand. If this continues over time, you have the beginnings of community.

I think objects may acquire meaning and life for the subjects through conversation, exchange and gifting. Information is social, and in many cases you're more likely to follow the recommendation of a friend, over a brand's advertised message. In the examples above, an object may be physical or it may be an idea, a theorem, a situation, a team (tribe), an experience, a concept ...

So I'm interested in whether the social object goes hand-in-hand with the object-centered environment, where you may interact with other people around/because of said object. For example, "work" is a common form of social object. When you go to work, you "plug-in" to an environment where you then socialize with your colleagues and customers, because you work at the same place (even if you telework). For instance, traders plugin to financial markets. Such environments are rich social objects, both positively and negatively. Think about the number of varied work-related conversations you've had over the years!

How can brands build such conversations and community, without resorting to unilateral advertising?

Posted by: Alex at January 16, 2008 1:04 PM

"All mass behaviour is the result of interacting individuals within a specific context.” - Mark Earls, HERD

Ergo, changing the context (or setting the context) via social markers affects the interactions and affects mass behaviour.

Dana, I agree with Hugh, I'm not so sure about the parallel with branding. When people approach a branding process, there's a lot of talk about brand essence, attributes, benefits, etc. - all an attempt to build positive product or service associations with the company. With that thinking, Stormhoek would be simply be 'branded' as a fresh, inexpensive bottle of wine for instance. Stormhoek as a social marker, however, is considerably different. Bring a bottle or two to a dinner you're having with social media folk, and Stormhoek sets a context for the interaction that goes well beyond any perceived product benefits. It tells others that you get it... that you, like them, are into blogging, etc.... or, in another crowd, it may well set a context that centres around a shared passion for change at microsoft, etc. It sparks a conversation... but it doesn't try to be the centre of the conversation.

Posted by: carman pirie at January 16, 2008 1:28 PM

I love when you post your thoughts as well as the cards. Keep going!

/ t

Posted by: Tom at January 16, 2008 1:39 PM

@Mike, you just need to find the right girls. :)

I'm consistently amazed at how little we have changed from the time of being furry small creatures barely down from the trees. It keeps boiling down to tribal signals and ways for us red-face-paint monkeys to differentiate ourselves from those untrustworthy blue-face-paint monkeys.

(And at the same time, our novelty-wired brain and need for genetic diversity keeps us open to the possibility of adopting some blue-face-paint ways, hooking up with a blue-face-paint cutie and strengthening our own tribe.)

Maybe I should write a book on Marketing for Small Furry Apes.

Posted by: Sonia Simone at January 16, 2008 3:00 PM

This is awesome. I am totally stealing this term to explain how people, groups, and things become a specialized tag called a social marker. And how this integrates with my Open Source Social network and Search Wikia!

Thank you!

Posted by: Silona at January 16, 2008 3:45 PM

Hugh, your observations bear a close relationship to what Josh Ellis dubbed 'Taste Tribes'.

Posted by: Michael R. Bernstein at January 16, 2008 4:31 PM

remember the Sloane Rangers? And PLUs (people like us)

anyone remember the Sloane Rangers greatest nightmare? - Harold Pinter winning the Nobel Prize for literature.

Posted by: peter at January 16, 2008 7:15 PM

Social markers sound much like the concept of "cultural literacy" ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cultural_literacy ) that was popularized in the 1980s by E. D. Hirsch Jr. A Google search on the term revealed an enclyopedia of 6,900 entries ( http://www.bartleby.com/59/ ) of, what?, "social markers?" that every American should know.

Perhaps every group we belong to -- work, social, hobby -- should have a wiki-like reference of "social markers" that we can refer to so we're all working from the same page.

Posted by: Rex Hammock at January 16, 2008 8:35 PM

Very interesting. So your friend was going to subtly introduce you as his social object and the girl he was hitting on topped him because, to her, you left social object status behind as a social marker.

The mention of a social marker, then, somehow preempts its use as a social object. The marker is indicative and subtle and acts as a hint; talking about it (like it was a mere social object) would dilute its magic.

One more thing... as for the positive / negative issue that Neil raised, maybe it's in order to specify a vector for the object, resp. marker. The social vector or marker vector adds a quality attribute to the social marker and loads it with even more potential for instant passion.

Posted by: Alexander Becker at January 16, 2008 9:07 PM


You're in fine form at the moment! I'm loving the Social Marker / Social Object converstaion that's going on around here at the moment.

Reminds me of an old Kathy Sierra post about "The Nod".


My point is that social markers aren't always conversation shortcuts. I can drop "Threadless" into a conversation about T-Shirts, or I can wear a Threadless T-shirt and get "the nod" by another Threadless fan, without a word spoken. Either way, I've earned cred.

And the social marker isn't about the thing that we have in common, it's about what having that thing says about us.

Posted by: Ben Rowe at January 17, 2008 2:58 AM

Hugh, thank you for the brilliant content. I’ve just recently started reading your material and as a young marketer, in the process of establishing my career, it’s proving to be quite insightful.

Do you think there are different classifications of Social Objects based on their function? I’ve just started to wrap my head around the concept but my thought was that different brands/categories represent different kinds of Social Objects.

For example, beer/coffee/restaurants would be “Social Facilitators” that help people get together but are not necessarily the focal point of the conversation.

There could be a hybrid grouping of Social Facilitators/Social Objects, where in my opinion most sports properties would fall into as well. People get together to watch the game and also talk about the game.

Just a thought. I’m probably over-complicating it but would love to get the opinion of others.

Posted by: Nish at January 17, 2008 4:06 AM


My kids go to an International school in Munich, Germany, which has children from something like 80 countries.

One of the obvious "social markers" or contextualisers - for adults anyway - is where the kids come from.

So, they'll come home and say "I was playing with Ahmed today" and as an adult, the first thing you say is "Hmm, that's interesting, where's he from?".

Their reply is always "I dunno" accompanied by a look of bafflement as to why that could possibly be relevant.

I also find it fascinating that if you push them a little with a "what's he like?" type of question, the fact that he might have say, dark skin or blond hair is about the 5th or 6th descriptor they use.

So, the social marker concept seems to be learned behaviour (anecdotally at least). And maybe the best networkers are actually those most skilled at social marking - well, it's a theory at least.


Posted by: Russell Buckley at January 17, 2008 8:46 AM

I guess you can also build a product that rides the wave of the social marker. Like ipod accessories.

And Twitteriffic is a great example of a product built around 2 social markers - Macs and Twitter.

Posted by: Ben Rowe at January 17, 2008 10:10 AM

The shock comes when the social markers you've so actively used on a day to day basis to sound out your surroundings aren't recognised anymore.

For example, a Christmas party with aunts and uncles you haven't seen in years. None of them understand blogging, have never used a Wii, an iPhone, have any interest in alternative movie culture or been on many international holidays.

That's when, without social markers, all of a sudden, you feel very very alien.

Like planting your markers into landslide ground...

Posted by: Vero Pepperrell at January 17, 2008 10:51 AM

It's not often I adopt buzzwords, but Social Marker is a great way of describing what in old money would have been brand strength or reach.

I work on some Social Marker brands which are used both in positive and negative contexts, and it can have amazing effects. And possibly the biggest challenge is to change the perception of a badly-perceived Social Marker.

But that's where I think the term comes into it's own. It's not about the product, or the perceived brand strength or message. It's about the accepted context of that marker, in that conversation, at that time, and how pervasive it is.

Posted by: Badger Gravling at January 17, 2008 11:41 AM

Very interesting... Do we describe social markers or do social markers describe us?

@Vero seems to say that we derive our identity from such markers...being part of a shared context is seemingly a lot like belonging to different tribes. "We are Manchester United fans" "We think Keira Knightly is hot"

As Desmond Morris wrote in his book The Soccer Tribe, each tribe has its own rituals and we derive comfort from following those rituals and belonging to a certain place.

Posted by: Gautam at January 17, 2008 11:58 AM

Badger, re. your last point. Mark Earls relayed pretty much the same point to me, over the phone.

Yes, exactly. The context is the brand, the "Brand" is not the brand. Or something like that ;-)

Posted by: hugh macleod at January 17, 2008 12:00 PM

Nice job!

I have a lot to think about, as a result of this entry, and the follow-up comments enriched the original idea. Thanks to all who participated and moved the conversation forward.

My space-geek friends were all sitting at a restaurant table on a Friday night (a weekly ritual with about 5-15 people), talking about Space/Tech/Software and my perpetual 'datelessness'. Most of the guys work for Microsoft, so space is their hobby, not their vocation. Since Space is my full-time gig, they were talking to me, and getting an update. The waiter overhears this part of the conversation and leaps in with talk about this crazy new invention called a "Space Elevator"... He starts talking about how it will "change everything" WHEN it succeeds, how revolutionary it is, why it is so important to get-off-this-rock of Earth. My friends and I don't say a word as to who I am, or what my job is. Instead, we sit back and talk to the kid, and let him educate us on his perceptions, hopes, and fears. It was profound and illuminating.

I have understood the term "social object" for a while now. But the ideas (and yes, with my marketing background i DO think that these are new, and not a rehash of 'branding') , the NEW ideas, of "social marker" and "social vector" add some clarity and appreciation for the lesson the waiter gave me. It was profound.

So, thanks to all of you, for helping put this person into better perspective for me. He identified "hope for the future of mankind" with "advanced technology and the people willing to risk the unknown to pursue it".

I will be thinking about social-object/marker/vector for days.

Take care.

p.s. We gave him a good tip, but then i went to the car, and got a signed copy of my book, to leave for him. Since i keep a strong distinction between my "public" and "private" life, i left the book with the hostess, rather than give it to him directly. He still does not know who I am, as I have been back to that place a few times.

Posted by: SpaceElevator Guy (Michael Laine) at January 17, 2008 4:39 PM

@ Nish Yes I believe you are over-complicating it. If I understand Hugh 'Object' starts the conversation 'Marker' contextualizes the participants. What I'm getting from this blog is the *concept* of Web 2.0 Marketing and Branding, not a tutorial of what to do but a tutorial on what it *is* dong ma? Even if I'm mistaken KISS is the best approach to anything.
Oh and as you say you're starting out be aware you *will* make mistakes, don't sweat it. The worst is you'll have to start over.

Posted by: Paul at January 17, 2008 4:58 PM

I keep being compared to a social marker I don't want. I just published a children's book and every single person who knows about it made a reference to me becoming the next J K Rowling. I appreciate the sentiment, but I have no desire for my books to be compared to hers. We're on totally different tracks. So I plan to become my own social marker : )

Posted by: Diana at January 17, 2008 11:30 PM

Hugh, what an interesting point, and very well explained too....
Now, the really important point here is: Did he get the girl?? ;)

Thanks for posting...

Posted by: Fabian at January 18, 2008 8:46 AM

I can't help thinking there has to be an in-joke here with established brands about trying to find a Social Permanent Marker...

Or something taking off as being a Social Magic Marker.

And I was doing so well to make a good point for once....

Posted by: Badger Gravling at January 18, 2008 2:32 PM

Every time I read about these objects and markers I keep thinking about medieval Book of Hours. They were hand-made 'private' objects for the wealthy, handed down in generations but never shared. I think part of what makes social 'things' special is that they're not private. We have our own intimate objects that have individual meaning for us, and then there are shared objects that put us in a broader context with others.

Posted by: vicequeenmaria at January 18, 2008 2:58 PM

This all raises the question: Just who _do_ you think you are, Hugh MacLeod?

Posted by: Brooks Moses at January 20, 2008 2:52 AM

No reaction on the 'Taste Tribes' comparison? Hmm.

Posted by: at January 27, 2008 1:10 AM