Earlier this year I posted on the attributes of consumer internet start-ups that are likely to hit critical mass. Good sensible stuff about identifying your early adopters, making the product work for them, having a good distribution strategy (remember distribution is to consumer internet as location is to retail) and finally understanding the “essence” of your service.
In the post I referred to above I described “essence” as
how the service will operate as an emergent system – liquidity, status, buzz or UGC are common forms of “essence”
Jyri’s insight – which I now find in a blog post he wrote in 2005 is that the notion of social objects is helpful in understanding whether services have a compelling essence:
‘social networking’ makes little sense if we leave out the objects that
mediate the ties between people. Think about the object as the reason
why people affiliate with each specific other and not just anyone.
Think photos on Flickr, bookmarks on Delicious, or music on Last.fm and you start to get the picture.
I like this notion a lot – it helps explain why some social networks just feel flat – if you read Jyri’s post above he describes how LinkedIn got a bit that way because people were building connections for the sake of it – but since then they have added a vibrancy by making jobs the objects that people link through. That hasn’t worked so well in Europe where people still regard the LinkedIn network as a bit flat, but everything I hear tells me the US is a different story.
In his presentation last week Jyri listed a couple of signs that sites are really about social objects:
- The objects are shareable – accessed via permalinks, widgets, or thumbnails
- The verbs that people apply to the objects are prominent on the site
You can see how Jyri has put this into practice at Jaiku where he is making messages more social – and the differences between Jaiku and Twitter that everyone loves are the more social aspects like comments, presence and portrait photos on the phone.
As I say, I think these thoughts are powerful – a couple of (maybe obvious) caveats are appropriate though:
- There are many successful consumer internet businesses that are not social (Betfair, Skype, even Google) – they are simply better versions of offline services
- They don’t really help explain the success of the most popular social sites – Myspace, Facebook, bebo – (some people would argue that music is the social object on Myspce, but I think that only explains part of the success they have had)
All of which is to say that it isn’t necessarily the right strategy to put social objects at the heart of a consumer internet business.
One area where the idea definitely applies is my theme of social networking to do stuff, and the notion of social objects is a useful addition to my toolkit for evaluating companies in this space. As Jyri points out it is very relevant for sites like TrustedPlaces that are about places, it will also be important for social shopping sites like Crowdstorm and Karmony and probably also for webTV aggregators like TIOTI.
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