Social objects and the observer's paradox

My previous post about "social objects", described how your profile, what you publish and what share online determines the impression you make and provides topics or hooks for others to get in touch with you. The term social object is a convenient shorthand for describing such hooks, which represent many of the reasons people socialize with each other online; this theory is referred to by sociologists as "object-centered sociality".

Other ways to socialize include phatic communication, although arguably even small talk may be carried out for ulterior motives.

"No Man's Blog" has an excellent analysis of identity management and phatic communication through the use of Facebook applications.

Objections raised

My post garnered excellent, lengthy comments. Referring to Hugh MacLeod posts here and here, one of the commenters, Bernard Tremblay voices a valid, if strongly worded, objection on his blog to the use of the term "Social Object". Bernard laments that the term seems prone to profiteering by marketing "snake oil salesmen":Twitter / Bernard D. Tremblay : #matrix #borg M. Scott Peck...

The moment draws nigh when we take one more step: “you came over just to chew the fat with Pam” … right. But what happens when we use “social objects” as our lens? We see that entirely social impulse in terms of transaction … the title of the piece is “marketing” and properly so: what we’ve done here is reduced the whole to an exchange between providers and consummers [sic].

Yet the trend is clear ...

There's plenty evidence that brands are investing heavily in online word-of-mouth marketing. According to PQ Media,

Spending on word-of-mouth (WoM) marketing jumped 35.9% in 2006 to $981.0 million and is expected to top $1 billion in 2007, making it one of the fastest growing alternative media segments. Driving the growth is the continued consumer shift to alternative media and the marketers' need for increased brand engagement and ROI. These are some of the findings of the first in-depth analysis of the emerging word-of-mouth (WoM) marketing industry released today by PQ Media, the leading provider of alternative media econometrics (

Helping to fuel this growth are a projected 3.5 billion brand-related conversations per day in the U.S., according to Keller Fay Group, with nearly 80% of consumers trusting recommendations from family, friends and "influential" persons over all other forms of advertising and marketing.

Need more evidence? According to Nielsen, vehicle discussions are up 40% since January 2007. Interestingly, the same article displays Nielsen's "Brand Association Map, which is a "a visualization tool to map how consumers naturally think and talk about brands online." This is how the social object plays out in conversations. Here's an example of a map of conversations about Nike.

Pitfalls abound!

So let's all hop on the word-of-mouth bandwagon, and let's do it by creating social objects for people to engage in object-oriented sociality, but under own terms, right? Not surprisingly, this type of thinking is fraught with pitfalls. Some examples come to mind:

  • Should brands join or build social networks? Consider the $2 to $3 Million "Connecting with Cookies" site, whose shortcomings are described here by Kami: "Connecting with Cookies is pure advertising and the site is a brochure. There is nothing wrong with that, but if Pepperidge Farms was sold a social media site, this isn't it."

  • McDonald's strained effort to create a Starbuck's-like experience in its stores, which according to this FastCompany article, is certain to bomb: "Remember McPizza? Me neither. I've read it was neither better nor worse than Pizza Hut or Domino's Pizza, but it was a miserable failure. Why? Because when you go into a McDonald's, you're going to be bullied out of your pizza-eating mood (assuming you entered with one in the first place) by the sweet stink of the flagship fare. The place reeks of fries and beef. McDonald's has spent millions of dollars developing chemical aromas for its fries, burgers and chicken, and they are every bit as intoxicating as they were meant to be. You know that frustration you experience when you try to hum one song while another is playing on the radio? That very dissonance was the demise of the McPizza, and will claim McCoffee next."

  • And more generally, some companies and brands are paying bloggers and social networkers to advocate their product, for instance by using Pay-Per-Posts' rebranded SocialSpark service (good introductory video, though and props for the greater transparency with the disclosure badge). From the video: "... the perfect way for brands who want to engage bloggers in a more controlled atmosphere" ... lol. As if you could craft real conversations between people to mirror the laundry detergent ads on TV.

Censoring or attempting to control the word-of-mouth is equally misguided, as in the case of Microsoft doing away with the Blue Monster; according to Robert Scoble: "@gapingvoid: yeah, someone inside Microsoft killed the Blue Monster. Sigh. Microsoft's committees kill everything cool." The alternative would have been to let the Blue Monster live its own life and retire itself when Microsoft does start changing the world again.

The Observer's Paradox:

Zero Influence points out that "Brand as a Narrative prevents the Brand existing as Embodiment. Brands need to live within the architecture of life, not on the perception plane. Trying to get a purchasing audience to care about a Brand is costly compared to using your Brands affordances to improve the infrastructure of life. In this case giving is cheaper than advertising."

In "The Gift", Lewis Hyde makes this point by describing an English fairy tale of a ...

"... Devonshire man to whom the fairies had given an inexhaustible barrel of ale. Year after year the liquor ran freely. Then one day the man's maid, curious to know the cause of this extraordinary power, removed the cork from the bung hole and looked into the cask; it was full of cobwebs. When the spigot next was turned, the ale ceased to flow.

The moral is this: the gift is lost in self-consciousness. To count, measure, reckon value, or seek the cause of a thing, is to step outside the circle, to cease being 'all of a piece' with the flow of gifts and become, instead, one part of the whole reflecting on another part.

Because life is grainy and each bit, the good and the bad, make up your experience. The things we love most may have lots of defects. When things are too easy, we take them for granted. And when things sound too rosy, we distrust them. And if you look into the source of your gift, you'll lose the shine in your own self-consciousness.

The same thing applies when designing spaces for consumer interaction with your social objects.

Talking about Relational Aesthetics and art, where the audience is envisaged as a community, French theorist Nicholas Bourriaud, curator at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris, says,

"There are two ways of building an institution. One way is to build a jewelry box to present objects and the other one is to conceive of it as an open market where everything is removable and you can change things all the time. ....

I think that maybe the idea of being relevant, of being useful, of being pertinent is more important to artists than just doing something new ....

Ten years ago, it would have been completely impossible to consider a DJ as an artist for example. Now, it's normal. Nobody would even think of saying 'you're already playing pre-existing records, so you're not an artist.' That's vanished. The idea of the artist as a kind of demi-god creating the world from a blank sheet of paper is something that has just vanished from our every day culture. The fact that the DJ or programmer or artist uses already existing forms in order to say what they want to say is something that is certainly the most important thing at the moment because it totally goes beyond the art world."

If you're a brand, consider becoming a DJ with your products and services. There are plenty of examples, including Radiohead's latest album, Amazon's customer service (“Jeff used to say that if you did something good for one customer, they would tell 100 customers”), and Dell's Ideastorm.

So Design for Hackability (pdf file, via PLSJ). Design for play and join your audience. Just don't make it slick and stop your bean-counting, if you want to build engaging experiences with your community around your social objects.

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January 11, 2008 in Social Media & Networks, Social Object | Permalink | Comments (4) | TrackBack

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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 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, 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 | Comments (11) | TrackBack

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