Social objects and social gestures

As you probably know Hugh MacLeod writes a great blog at GapingVoid – and he has been writing a lot about social objects recently, including a good post on social gestures and then yesterday one on social markers.

The social object concept is a powerful one when it comes to understanding social networks. Despite only really taking off last year it is not a new idea, and for an academic perspective I strongly recommend Jyri Engestrom’s seminal post on this topic from 2005.

For a recap on definitions I’m going to borrow a sentence or two from Hugh:

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.

and

Social Networks form around Social Objects, not the other way around. [his emphasis]

Examples from Jyri’s post include Flickr which made photos social objects with tagging etc. and built a network around that, and del.ico.us, which did the same for URLs.  Our portfolio company WAYN did the same for trips.

That much I get, but until reading Hugh’s posts I struggled to extend the concept to the most successful social networks.  Myspace, Facebook, Bebo, etc didn’t seem to have a social object at their core (I don’t buy the argument that music is the social object Myspace – there is too much else that goes on).

What dawned on me whilst reading Hugh’s posts is that in the big networks like these are about multiple social objects.  On Facebook there are pokes, walls, all sorts of applications and even profiles themselves – plus I’m sure I’ve missed a bunch.  On Myspace music is an important one, but the coloured tapestry of the Myspace profile is right up there too.  The recent Bebo TV initiative adds another talking point to the site, i.e. another social object.

The other big take aways for me from Hugh’s posts are probably the more interesting ones – they concern how the notions of social objects and social gestures can help get a consumer internet startup get to critical mass (or help me predict which ones will get there).

  • Social gestures beget social objects – successful communities have social objects at their heart and objects become social when they are associated with social gestures
  • It is possible to make boring products into social objects – look at what Nike and Adidas did to the boring plimsoll, and this is what Hugh did with Stormhoek.  The trick – add social gestures and/or (in Hugh’s words) raise the conversation.  The classic social gesture on consumer internet has been the beta invite – if the underlying service has even a little cachet people feel good about sending and receiving beta invites, so lots get sent, and adoption increases.  Unfortunately this tactic is now so widespread that it has lost it’s meaning, and new ones are needed.  Gestures that share a little bit of the sender could be the way forward – e.g. sharing future journeys on Dopplr.
  • Really successful products become social markers – people use them to identify themselves e.g. I’m on Facebook as a personal statement, or wearing Nike trainers as a personal statement – you could do worse than to define success in this way.

Companies that get this have a much greater chance of success than those who don’t.