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The use of social objects as artefacts for identity management

First, a bit of history

Before talking about social objects as accessories for online impression management, I wanted to surface a bit of history about the term, "Social Object".

There's been a lot of talk lately about object-centered sociality, which can be thought of as "the reason people connect and socialize with each other", to paraphrase Jyri Engestrom. In addition to Jyri, Hugh MacLeod of Gapingvoid's been posting lots of ideas about "Social Object", particularly here and here:

"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." -Gapingvoid

Hugh asked me whether there's a link pointing to Jyri and I conversing about social objects, as we did in Reboot7 and LesWebs3 in 2005:

Alas, no, there is no link: Jyri Engestrom first blogged about object-centered sociality before the Reboot7 conference in Copenhagen in mid-2005 in a blog post that referred to the ground-breaking work of sociologist Karin Knorr-Cetina, and that changed my understanding of online social networking. I then contacted Jyri, Anne Galloway and a few others for guidance on where to learn more about object-centered sociality; I spent the next couple of months devouring every paper I could get my hands on. I relied on friends who are professors in procuring me hard to obtain research papers. That same year, I spoke with Jyri in person on two occasions, once at Reboot 7, where he gave a great presentation on the subject, and later that year at Loic's LesWebs3 conference in Paris. On both occasions, we spoke about using the term "social object" to refer to object-centered sociality. A Google search at the time produced no results; but if I am not mistaken, the term had already been used a couple of time before by sociologists in research papers. How did Hugh link Jyri and I? He was at both conferences as well. By way of full disclosure, I registered the socialobject.com domain in mid-2005.

Do I believe social object is the "Future of Marketing", as Hugh does? Yes, I definitely believe social object design and related concepts have the potential to foster greater customer engagement and word-of-mouth.

Do I think I should get credit for co-coining the term? No: the term has quite probably been in existence, even if obscurely. I am glad the concept is finally getting wider play.

Social objects as artefacts for identity management

I had a conversation on Twitter yesterday about Singelringen as a social object; it's a catchy blue ring worn by people who are, you guessed it, single:

From the site: "By wearing your Singelringen, you declare that it is OK to be single. You may wish to find "the one", or you are quite satisfied with life as it is. Regardless, you will show to everyone that you accept and stand for what you are, an attractive single."

  • alexdc: so the singelringen becomes the social object for connecting? sure, it's a conversation starter but something's missing, methinks
  • alexdc: @leahjones ok; to grow as social object, should have traditions rituals activites or other socially constructed fictions for greater meaning
  • alexdc: @kr8tr right, the message should not be "I am available"; it should be let's respect, cherish and celebrate being single
  • alexdc: @apenny i believe the ring is no more a social object than a wedding ring: the conversations are around the traditions of marriage, not ring
  • alexdc: when you meet a married person, you might ask how they met, where they got married, do they have children, etc ... the ring is just a signal
  • alexdc: with a singelringen person, what are conversation points? there are no social norms or single institutions around which to converse
  • alexdc: @apenny i believe social objects are enriched through socially constructed fictions, stories, history, ritual, behavior: ring is a "signal"
  • alexdc: @lindasherman i'm not disputing singelringen is a social object: it certainly breaks the ice; it may grow into more significant S.O. w/ time
  • alexdc: @lindasherman if singelringen is a "real-life" (as opposed to online) substitute for Match.com, it will remain only as an ice breaker
  • alexdc:  @lindasherman if singelringen wearers take pride in being single as a lifestyle, even temporarily, then that's really different and worthy

So Singelringen serves as an accessory for others to recognize, like a wedding ring. Malcolm Gladwell wrote about rapid cognition in his best-selling book Blink; people make immediate judgements about others, about their environment and about situations through a process called thin-slicing:

When you meet someone for the first time, or walk into a house you are thinking of buying, or read the first few sentences of a book, your mind takes about two seconds to jump to a series of conclusions.

In this sense, Singelringen is an immediately noticeable, interesting and unusual ice breaker, like Armstrong's yellow Livestrong bracelet. Starting to talk with someone about the ring can lead to prolonged conversations about what it means to be single. And as people talk to each other about the Singelringen, they construct their particular fiction or story about it, which is what social objects generally lead people to do. When you see someone with such a ring, you will probably thin-slice and already start to make some judgements.

Similarly, today's New York Times has an article, "Putting Your Best Cyberface Forwards", about online impression management:

Keith N. Hampton, an assistant professor at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania, said the notion of impressing “everyone out there” is the fundamental problem of networking sites. They are designed so that millions see the same image of a member.

For online impression management to be effective, Mr. Hampton said, the sites should be redesigned to allow people to reveal different aspects of their identity to different users. You should be able to present one face to your boss, and another to your poker buddies. “We have very real reasons for wanting to segment our social network,” he said.

This makes a lot of sense. You probably dress and behave differently at work than you would with your buddies or your family. The way others thin-slice you is dependent on the clothing and accessories (artefacts) you're wearing and on your behavior. Just as you present different sides of yourself in different situations in real life, so should you be able to manage your online personas. Most social networks don't allow you to segment your contacts so they see different aspects of you. However, you control the information you publish and by doing so manage your identity to make an impression on others. The following blog post illustrates this; Red Coat, Black Coat on PSFK:

Unlike paranoid Steve [who wears a black coat to protect his privacy], Jill is considered as the socially evolved. It’s not only her red coat that presents an image to the world of how she wants to be seen – Jill understands and manipulates how the world sees her, how companies see her, how her friends see her. Using technology that was developed maybe twenty years ago, Jill knows nearly everything everybody else knows about her. And in the same way she uses his bright red coat to make a statement about herself, she manages the data about herself to present the image she wants.

Information is like fashion – to be used, shown off and even bartered with.

By using online artefacts and accessories, Jill is manipulating social objects and signaling to others how to connect with her. When you wear a Singelringen or a Rolex watch in real life, you are sending signals for others to pick up. Online, you use information about yourself and perhaps pictures, videos, slideshows, Facebook applications or other object-artefacts to send signals on how others should socialize with you.


If you'd like to know more about social object in concept and practice, I posted a number of links on Twitter yesterday that may be helpful:

January 3, 2008 in Social Media & Networks, Social Object | Permalink


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I have to say that all this resonates with something I've been working on years. As in "year; plural". So I won't now pretend to respond to your post ... I look forward to giving it a good read.

But as for "social object" I've been sniping (as in with a gun, not as in with scissors ... though I have been snipping, too, see my most recent Tweet: " RadioHead's Yorke has it right: "object" as low-grade artefact, ergo for me "social object" denigrates > http://snipurl.com/1whwy <")

My point is that "social object" is, to be polemical, reductionist and technocratic ... it dehumanizes the phenomenon and thereby the transactions. To be romantic, it demystifies the whole and drains it of the vitality that makes it (at least potentially) vigorous and vivid.

BTW, peripherally, I have been tweeting with @dpn about the possibility of doing some sort of multivariate analysis on #themewords ... where's the "object" in a collection of "themewords for 2008"?


p.s. I use "Gnodal" as a working name for my "participatory deliberation" project; I know all about having the life-blood drained ... ;-)

p.s.2 I don't think your Preview functions works right on FF2.0 ... I'm seeing a very odd page. light gray text on a BG comprised of light gray walkie-talkies and light grey text blobs.

Posted by: Ben Tremblay | Jan 3, 2008 7:28:52 PM

Thank you Alex for this post. Very thought-provoking (in a good way!) :-)

Posted by: vicequeenmaria | Jan 3, 2008 7:32:34 PM

I hate to break the news to you. And I am not trying to be negative, however:

The Singlerigen is a sad phenomenon of the day that is often adopted by by tragically single folk who are (rightfully) pining for companionship. It's a voluntary scarlet letter.

I do not believe that there is anything wrong with singlehood (I'm divorced twice, I must like it), but the single ring and its potential for misuse, abuse, and as a scent marker for predatory behavior is problematic.

I know of one case history that I wish I could relate here, but dur to privacy concerns, I can't. Let me, however, state that the person who advocates for this flawed marker needs to get hitched and fast. To the appropriate person, of course.

Posted by: Alan Wilensky | Jan 3, 2008 8:59:35 PM

I wanted to add my tweet back to Alex:
LindaSherman: @alexdc Singelringen is not a substitute for match.com. I think as you do that the pride thing is key. That singles are already complete. about 4 hours ago

Alex is absolutely right that the conversation around Singelringen is what people attribute to it and that pride in being single is a significant factor. Both single men and women are tired of being bugged by their friends and family to get married as though being single is less than that. Singelringen is a declaration that as a single person you are already complete. You are not broken, you are not desperate, you are OK.
Some feedback from Singelringen wearers:
“A guy can add to my life but he doesn't define it” “I don’t need a marriage license to validate my existence.”

The ice-breaker effect: “I wear three rings and the only one that anyone really ever asks questions about is the singelringen. You guys did a really good job of making the ring look symbolic and making it stand out against other normal, decorative rings. I always enjoy explaining the meaning of it!”
And as Alex pointed out, once you are talking you put your own story to it. One guy wrote us, "I decided to buy a ring to commemorate the 10th year of my divorce"

Some people appreciate the "signal" aspect of Singelringen, that as a status ring, it indicates the person is unattached. Some say no, they prefer no ring so that they can lie about their status when convenient. Particularly, in Canada I hear about women wearing wedding rings to keep men away. In this sense, I believe that wearing Singelringen also indicates confidence and a willingness to be honest to those who might approach you.

And here’s a weird thing. We know that neediness drives people away and genuine self-assurance is attractive. It could be a placebo effect but many wearers report they are pleased with who they meet after they start wearing Singelringen.

Posted by: Linda Sherman | Jan 3, 2008 9:14:46 PM

I'm putting together Alex's Tweet on ego-centric vs. object-centric networks (http://chimprawk.blogspot.com/2007/11/social-network-transitions.html) with my memory of fashion accessories as symbols (http://www.snopes.com/risque/school/bracelet.asp) to conclude the following.

With all this talk about social networks and social objects, no one seems to talk about the why. What motivates someone to wear a colorful fashion accessory or create a colorful ego-centric profile page?

The answer is attention. We all want someone's attention, especially if it's positive.

Identifying myself by decorating myself or my ego-page is a good way to "break the ice" and get some attention. But attention is an addictive drug. Once I have a little, I want more. How do I get more?

To keep feeding the monster some people just keep socializing. If someone's listening to me, then they must be paying me attention.

But you let anyone talk for an extended period of time and eventually you'll find some reason to dislike them. Yes, you're single and hip, but you're also a jerk. Yes, you're ego-page is eye-catching, but you're also egotistical.

The ego-centric social object cuts both ways. You interact with enough jerks wearing Singleringens and soon blue rings worn on the right hand become associated with desperately-single, socially-inept dweebs who need some cheap gimmick to initiate a conversation with the opposite sex. (This is right around the time our parents (aka the tragically unhip) first start to figure out the "new thing all the kids are doing these days").

The problem is that there's no logical link between wearing a singleringen and being single. It's all hype from the Singleringen company - hype which can be turned on its head at any time. In the end, most people are turned off and return to the tried-and-true ways of signaling singleness. And a few people, frustrated by the disconnect between social object and identity, take it too far by, for example, wearing shirts that say "I'm single" in big bold letters across the front.

Singleringens and MySpace pages are not good social objects.

A good social object allows someone to naturally and logically conclude what they should do to get more attention. If my videos receive a lot of views, then I should make more videos. If my photos receive a lot of positive comments, then I should take more photos. If my blog gets a lot of link love, then I should write more blog posts.

If my singleringen or MySpace page gets a lot of attention, then I should quickly take advantage and change topics to a different, better social object before my ego-centric accessory goes out of style.

Posted by: Ed T. | Jan 3, 2008 11:18:45 PM

Human behavior gets really interesting when we lose our balance between individual identity and group identity. It seems to me that as these social object phenomena infect larger chunks of society, their early victims are "cured" of their attachment to the object.

For example, I was introduced to lolcats about a year ago. Each lolcat I encountered was side-splittingly hilarious. The phenomenon broke ranks with the underground when it was picked up by major media. With that level of exposure came a tremendous increase in user-contributed lolcats and, predictably, a decrease in quality. My last visit to icanhascheezburger.com left me unfulfilled. The lolcat has run out of lol. I'm sure alexa will concur.

The same will likely happen with singleringen. What started as a cute way of connecting individuals is becoming cliched. As knowledge of its significance infects the general population, it loses its uniqueness and, in turn, its purpose. Another social object dies from overindulgence.

Posted by: Tim | Jan 4, 2008 10:57:31 AM

I think the mot interesting (to me) statement is: "Information is like fashion – to be used, shown off and even bartered with." At parties, mentioning Facebook is like an accessory - it allows a conversation to begin. I think, however, that an accessory is not a social object; it's an indicator. When my party friend and I "friend" each other on Facebook, that's not a social object yet (as I understand it so far). It's a polite response that we are willing to acknowledge each other's existence in this environment. When we begin to play, what we play with is the social object, the ball, so to speak, that allows us to play the social game.

Posted by: Joan Vinall-Cox | Jan 4, 2008 12:09:55 PM

I don't know if i necessary believe that wearing Singelringen is ego-centric or attention-seeking as has been argued. Personally, I feel that the true and inherent value of being a Singelringen wearer is in the fact that others will NOT view the ring as an invitation to instigate a dialogue about being single (a la offine Match.com). As a content single woman working in a predominantly male industry, I don't want to feel pressure to constant explain to others as to why I am unattached. Just a glance at the Singelringen is a subtle reminder that I am perfectly happy with my life and the I am solely responsible for my personal happiness.

Posted by: Rana Sobhany | Jan 4, 2008 12:19:57 PM

I don't know if i necessarily believe that wearing Singelringen is ego-centric or attention-seeking as has been argued. Personally, I feel that the true and inherent value of being a Singelringen wearer is in the fact that others will NOT view the ring as an invitation to instigate a dialogue about being single (a la offine Match.com). As a content single woman working in a predominantly male industry, I don't want to feel pressure to constant explain to others as to why I am unattached. Just a glance at the Singelringen is a subtle reminder that I am perfectly happy with my life and the I am solely responsible for my personal happiness.

Posted by: Rana Sobhany | Jan 4, 2008 12:20:15 PM

Alex, the idea of the single ring is both fascinating and oddly unattractive at once. It's something I've been thinking a lot about lately. The singelringen as a social object created by a company doesn't feel 'organic' to me, and I think that part of what gives a social object some integrity is how it incorporates naturally into everyday life. IE, Hugh talks about wine, we drink wine, we share, but it doesn't mean 'anything', it's just something we all enjoy and share. It's the sharing part that makes it social and wonderful, not the fact that the object is a personal "mark" for one person.

I suppose the single ring is somehow like getting a tattoo or some kind of body mark (jewelry, etc;) to define yourself, if that's important to you at the moment. Some people are into that and that's all good and well; I respect that it may be important to some and of course, I'm always up for a good joke.

But on the other hand, an engagement ring/marriage band is special *precisely* because it is what it is. When one takes a vow to be responsible and accountable to another human being, it *is* VERY important. And perhaps people have come to take that for granted. How can any single person deny the sanctity of this vow? That's the whole point of the ring! How can any single person be so naive?

Personally, as a single woman, I would not buy a singleringen ever. It wd not be a 'social' object at all for me, but one that makes a mockery of something that I believe should be taken seriously, even if I happen to not be in the estate of marriage at the moment.

I once gave five dollars to a woman at the supermarket who couldn't pay for all her groceries. I was also quite broke at the time. My life coach told me -- it could've been five *million* dollars, or five cents, it didn't matter. it was the act of exchange and the act of love that mattered, not the green bill signifying "five dollars." So maybe we should be talking about the currency and action behind the object. I think the object is a metaphor for the energy that is shared.

Posted by: vicequeenmaria | Jan 4, 2008 12:30:26 PM

Guess I'll pipe in since I have and wear a Singelringen. It first came to my attention about a year ago, after a break-up when I was particularly fragile. "Huh, that's cool, if I can budget the money, I'll buy one."

I am a terribly inertia driven shopper though and never got around to it, then Linda gave one to me.

Since I started wearing it, I've only been to the office, so I can't say what it's like to wear it out to a bar or a cafe. What I can tell you is that I wasn't interested in it BECAUSE it was a social object, that occured to me after I put it on.

For me it is not a mockery of marraige or an ego driven splashy scarlet letter making me a desperate potential victim to scam artists. It is quite simply a small reminder to myself that I'm okay as a single woman.

It is not a vow to always be single. It doesn't declare my hatred of men or a distaste of relationships. It is a physical manifestion of some healing I'm trying to do after having my heart broken twice in 2007.

And if people talk about it, then it might become a social object. It is different than the Blue Monster, wine or the iPhone? Yes. Of course it is. Is it about money, ultimately? Yes, of course it is.

Singelringen is a jewelry company serving a niche market. They found a cool angle, a good designer and some nice people to sell it.

That's called business, I think.

Posted by: Leah | Jan 4, 2008 12:58:18 PM

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