- April
Posted By : Adrian Chan
SxD: Social Objects

This is just a quick post on social objects. The concept of social objects is pretty widely used in social interaction design, but we’re missing a solid definition of what social objects are. Or, whether they really even exist.

The most common use of the term “social object” refers to shared online resources around which interactions develop and coalesce. Examples could include gifts on Facebook, videos, or what have you. The object sort of serves as a shared object, a focus of attention, an actual digital object, and so on. And the object plays a role in governing or informing interactions; we know what objects mean and what to do with them (give them, comment on them, play them, etc.)

But the definition of social object is a bit too fuzzy for me, and for a couple reasons.

Firstly, as designers, the object plays into our interest in having an object language — things to design and design for. We are biased to think in terms of objects; objects belong to the world of interface design. So there is a possibility that where there is actually other stuff going on, we focus on the object out of our own interest. (By analogy, consider the anthropologist who focuses her attention on these social objects: a ceremonial mask, money, a wedding ring, a football. How much of the rituals, pastimes, social and cultural practices belong to the object and are explained by object properties? Not much….)

Secondly, objects are easily confused with their properties, attributes, qualities, uses, and so on. This is just how language works. We name a thing and give it attributes, and having done so we have a stable concept. Plato’s ideal chair, vs all real chairs. Concepts then substitute for the real thing. It’s possible that we’re actually talking about the concept of social objects, and not social objects as used.

Which is a more accurate description of gifting on Facebook: the relationship between two friends and the practice of giving gifts on birthdays, or the graphic of the beer mug? The more accurate description of user interaction would be that which explains the practice of gift giving, the symbolic act of presenting a gift, the Facebook tradition of recognizing birthdays, and the social space in which gifts are seen by others such that birthdays create a cause for a stretch of social interaction.

We know that social objects are a shared cultural resource — their meanings are culturally context-specific. We know that many social practices involve social objects. We know that in the digital domain, social objects are unique in that there is no original object but many copies; that an object can appear in many places at once.

For example, I give you a beer mug and it is on your wall but in my stream also — same object, but not really, since one is the one I gave you and yours is the one you received. We’re really talking about a representation, not an object. In other words, the object represents the act.

If the social object is sometimes the representation of an act, then perhaps the focus should be on the act, and on interaction practices, less on the object. The act of recognizing a friend’s birthday by gifting a graphic beer mug is a better explanation of the user activity. The object is merely a representational vehicle by which the activity is sedimented into a mediated, visible, socially recognizable form.

Social objects, then, might be better understood as common forms. Forms in which many kinds of graphics, rich media, even textual forms (for a tweet is a social object as soon as it is retweeted) permit diverse kinds of social interaction. The object, in other words, is not an object, but a form.

If social objects are a form of representation, we can expand our understanding of what they mean. If a form has visual content, it is an image. If it has linguistic content, it is a text or an utterance. If it is a video, it is televisual.

If it is a gift using a graphic, such as the beer mug, then it is both a symbolic token (as described by traditions of gift giving — the gift is an object with meaning inherited from the tradition of gift exchange, and specified by meanings belonging to the object: price, ownership, status, utility, etc) and an image. The beer mug graphic indicates “a drink” (this is basic theory of representation stuff: the image is a beer mug); the act of giving it refers to “get you a drink for your birthday”. The interaction, in other words, is a symbolically-mediated one, referencing a content (get you a beer) and a cultural practice (on your birthday).

We can now see that the interaction situates and contextualizes the object. Not the other way around. The object doesn’t tell us what’s going on, nor does it define uses and interactions. Those belong to practices — namely, practices in which objects are used.

There’s another reason that the object should take a subordinate role to the interaction. Tweets are social objects. Tweets are utterances that take a form, and which, given that twitter is a distribution platform, can be circulated, referenced, recontextualized (posted to streams, blogs, surfaced in search, etc), and so on. We miss out on the significance of the “commodity” form of mediated talk if we think in terms of objects. Because we think of objects as things.

But clearly, anything that can be mediated and used as a shared resource can be a social object. And this includes tweets, things, and much more. So if the world of social objecst includes linguistic statements, gestural tokens (emoticons), signs, numbers (is a follower number a social object? it certainly is the object of a lot of social activity!), images, graphics, avatars, and on and on. We would have to admit that not only is the idea of social objects so broad as to be almost meaningless; but that it’s lost any critical or explanatory power. A concept too big to give us any guidance.

So that’s where I am on social objects. We need a better description. Personally, I think we can borrow from linguistics, semiotics, and anthropology. I would argue that the interaction domain has primary importance, and that the subdomain is symbolically-mediated interaction.

Within this, then, types include:

  • linguistic statements
  • symbolic tokens
  • currencies
  • representational objects
  • images
  • gestural signs
  • signs
  • numbers
  • rich media (video, etc — stuff playable online)
  • bookmarks
  • avatars
  • etc

Using the disciplines I just mentioned, we would be able to use:

  • linguistics for linguistic statements
  • semiotics for signs
  • representational theory for representations (looks like something) and images (is of something)
  • cultural anthro for exchange practices and their token objects
  • media theory for numbers (stats, counts, etc)
  • and so on.

The types are then unpacked in the contexts of their use, in their contribution to interactions, in their meanings, and as expressions of intent and guidelines for interpretation. And, most importantly, we would be able to account for the enormously innovative and unique ways in which symbolically-mediated interactions can refer to all manner of meaningful activities online, from social games to Second Life (which is, kind of, a total social object world!), from gifting to retweeting, and so on. It’s a bigger project, but the online world is incredibly rich. And I’m convinced that we might misinterpret what’s going on around it if we allow ourselves to think of objects as objects.



  • Interesting and nice analysis. I can certainly see why software designers would tend to see objects as objects, since a computer program has affordances for manipulating data objects and metadata, and a software designer might be tempted to find commonalities for object affordances. But that underlying technical implementation has very little to do with the people interacting with each other using the software!

    But it is somewhat less purely techno-centric than that, I think. Given some of the early models, I can perhaps see why there might be confusion between the form and the interaction. A number of early models of social software were based on ideas about “content” and “user-generated content”. There are bits of information (videos, music, books, product descriptions, slides, bookmarks, posts/updates) that can be annotated and exchanged in various ways – shared, tagged, rated, recommended, etc.

    Rashmi Sinha wrote an influential post several years ago that summarized a set of common design patterns around these practices of sharing and remembering and promoting these content-like-things. There are, I think, related sets of practices that pre-existed and evolved with the availability of these tools (where the evolution of practices includes social gestures that depend on the fact that sharing actions are visible to others). There is a real pattern here. http://rashmisinha.com/2006/08/08/my-slides-for

    It's also interesting that Facebook has commoditized the content-sharing pattern by implementing a common set of interaction affordances on status updates that are expressions of many different types of actions and interactions – from link-sharing to birthday gifts to game events to party notices and so on. Other than some awkward ironies around bad news – no, I do not “like” that a friend's relative has been diagnosed with a serious disease – the commoditization works to proliferate conversation and social interest around a diverse array of interactions.

    But it is a mistake generalizing from these information-sharing practices to all practices — as you note, birthday gift-giving is associated with different behavior patterns; game tokens are different, emotional and decorative elements are different, and so on. So yes, it would behoove designers working on systems that support different types of interaction to consider the type of interaction.

  • I should probably have been more clear that I wasn't attempting a theory of
    social objects, but rather a critical reflection — Thomas Vanderwal emailed
    me to remind me that work has been done around a def of social objects that
    is fairly specific a type of interaction. And I state my preference for
    thinking, if not theorizing, in terms of symbolically-mediated interactions,
    which places emphasis where I prefer to see it: on action and construction
    of social meanings.

    The term social object is used a lot these days, even to refer to brands.
    This post is less about social objects and more about construction of the
    concept. I would agree that there are design patterns here, but also think
    there's more to understand. That tweets are a transformation of individual
    expression into some other form, is an example of that. (The retweet being
    proof that tweets may have a commodity form of sorts, if not also sign

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  • Hi Adrian,
    I think you're spot on in emphasizing that the idea of social objects has value only if you're interested in how (and why) some objects come to direct people's actions, and how objects participate in the construction of social meanings.

    I like to think of social objects simply as the reason people connect with each other. So, even though designers may create lots of objects, not all of them engage people that way. Most stuff doesn't turn into social objects; they remain just 'things'.

    Looking at objects this way has its roots in activity theory, a tradition of social theorizing which takes as its starting point that human action can only be understood as something always oriented towards an object, and mediated by symbolic and material tools.

    So, a social object is not just a material thing. “A thing or phenomenon becomes an object of activity as it meets a human need,” wrote one of the early activity theorists, Alexei N. Leont'ev. He called this meeting “an extraordinary act”.

    Basically, the object gives us a reason to talk to each other. “In this constructed, need-related capacity, the object gains motivating force that gives shape and direction to activity. The object determines the horizon of possible goals and actions.” (That quote is actually by my dad Yrjö Engeström, another activity theorist).

    If you're interested in activity theory, a good starting point are the two short introductory passages at http://www.helsinki.fi/cradle/activitysystem.htm and http://www.helsinki.fi/cradle/chat.htm

    Jyri E.

  • Jyri,

    Thanks for stopping by, and my apologies for not citing references in the original post. Vander Wal was good to remind me of the conceptual legacy of social objects in your and Karin Knorr Cetina's works.

    I'm going to get to that in the next wk, but until then a couple quick thoughts. First is, I come at this from talk, so objects are not the reasons people connect with each other. At least in the approach that I hail from — which is Goffman, Habermas, Austin, and others. Talk is itself able to furnish many means of framing interaction in and of itself; and relations taken up to subjective experience or to objective reality are both possible and familiar by means of interaction practices as well as the orientation of speech itself (whether to mutual understanding or to strategic action).

    I'm leaning in the direction of social objects as being a framing opportunity, and as serving purposes of communicability, which I think strongly correlates w Cetina's emphasis on object relations and object worlds and their role in identity attachments. Object worlds can frame meaning interpretation, coordinate action, provide guidance around interaction possibilities, and of course mediate communication.

    Which is where you come in. But I'm thinking that communicability is primary, not the object. In fact the object then may frame communication and succeed in mediating interaction even when interaction is not topically directed at the object. And in today's world of streams, objects may anchor interaction that is sourced and even sustained across many channels/sites/tools. A retweet object, or the object of a Facebook like, for example, frame possibilities for further communication but do not require that communication to be about the object. If it takes off around subjective relations — such as when friends use game scores as a springboard into smacktalk — then the object has still served the purpose of framing interaction, but is not a privileged object insofar as it's not the focus of attention (the object of talking).

    This of course is a non-instrumental view of action, and is based in the idea of human interests (Habermas) as well as social interactions (meaning, agency, other-oriented action). It's a fundamentally social view, and differs from the view of action presented in activity theory. I will need to do a refresher, but my preference to view social interaction as a form of social action, and specifically, mediated talk, leans towards understanding (tho not consensus) and away from needs-fulfillment as basis for interaction; and towards coordination of action as framing of activity instead of object-centricity or needs satisfaction.

    That's one aspect of Cetina's work that is a bit strange to me — her use of Lacan to structure wantings on an ontology of lack. I wonder if she uses it to structure the object relation world as a language, as Lacan suggested the subjective world is structured. Regardless, I don't think she means to suggest needs as in either Freudian drives or physical needs satisfied by object relations or objects. I think she means wantings in a meaning sense: object relations are open, unfolding (as she write, using heidegger), and permit meaning interpretations and social action.

    The fact that objects may provide a frame of reference even in spite of the loss of a common context, then may be explained by means of practices. Common social practices, such as retweeting, or followfriday, fame interaction even when the object view is faceted according to the channel in which the object reference appears. Objects can then be referenced and communicability is supported with their help, but as a reference not as the direct object of activity. Activity feed updates that reference objects support commenting among friends that has little to with the object — in fact many users may not even click through for the proper object view, and can still engage in meaningful and sensible communication. Or retweets may be retweeted to satsify motives of users who want to associate with the retweeter, or with the original tweeter, thus shifting the orientation of communication to author instead of object. And again, many retweeters do this without clicking through for the proper view of the reference (the link, say).

    For this reason, it seems to me, objects may provide one instance of frame of reference or referential object; but one among many framing possibilities. In a game, for example, the object may be subordinated to the move “played” which uses that object. The game and its rules then actually frame the interaction; the action is no more about the object than a chess move is about the bishop.

    In this view, objects of different types may be identified and understood for their intrinsic properties, as well as for the meanings attached and supplied by frames in which they support interaction. Objects that are pictures would have different properties than objects of status, objects bound to game moves, rules, and players who possess, exchange, give or receive them. And so on.

    It's a rich world, but I think separating object as form from object as content will help. As well as object and its relations — which can be objective relations to other objects, or relations to a practice, or relations to a subject. A meta data set would want to distinguish among these types of relations, for example, if it were to best capture what's going on.

    More later, but you see where this is going. Would be fun to discuss in person!


  • My definition is simple.

    A Social Object is anything (any concrete or abstract object) that causes subjects interacting with the object start interacting with each other.

    I appreciate if you can tell what is missing?

  • There are objects around which conversations form but which are not the reason for the conversation — as when people talk about something not related to the object. There's a conceptual weakness in the causality argument. People talk to each other. Sometimes they talk about the object that supplies the context, but not always. In many cases their relationships supply the reason they are talking. So the object can't be attributed with more than context in those cases — it's value as an object having content in those cases is irrelevant. I think there are too many occurrences of those use cases to call them edge cases. A social object model built around the relations that objects may take up is both stronger and more flexible, and assigns any “causality” where it belongs — to the relations, not the object's content.

    In short, past social object theory sometimes implies object content (picture of a party), sometimes object form (a picture), and sometimes context (facebook photo uploaded to news feed). I think that in today's use of social objects, which must include streams, the theory's not strong enough to provide a proper accounting for social practices and outcomes.

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