Beyond the Social Object

Gaping Void

The idea of social objects has been around for quite some time. Indeed, a lifetime in internet years. But for all of its conceptual durability, it offers limited theoretical insight — to the point of misleading designers, developers, and marketers alike.

I believe this owes to a couple of simplifications. First is to confuse context and frame with object. Second is to impute relations to objects. Consequently, the idea of social objects claims more than it can, explaining what it cannot and prescribing what it shouldn’t.

Behind the idea of the social object is the shared interest. The object is social because it represents a shared interest. This may be bowling, music, tv — it doesn’t matter. The “object” is an interest objectified. A bad conceptual move — for we don’t relate to “objects” like that; nor are experiences objects.

The “object” of interest substitutes for the interest, providing a name for that interest. But lost in that translation is the reason for the interest. A person “likes” bowling — the object of their interest is bowling. But actually, this person enjoys bowling. Another enjoys going bowling with friends. And another is getting better at bowling and has become obsessed with breaking 200.

These individuals, having very different ways of relating to their shared “object” (bowling) are now said to share their social object. Here the idea of social objects provides its second false insight: sharing. The social object is “shared” but in fact there has been neither an act of sharing nor a communication of shared interest. The object is simply an interest these individuals have in common.

That they might socialize around it together, or that they might want to communicate about it are conclusions we cannot draw. The relationships formed as a network of individuals and social objects “exist” only in abstract object and social graphs.

The idea of social objects allows us to describe relationships between people and their interests, but only with a minimum of accuracy. The reduction and simplification that gives us this graph of objects and relations eliminates both the motive/reason for interest, and the dynamics of relations.

Social objects are frames, not objects. The object of interest, if it is shared, is used as a frame. It frames our observations and descriptions. And it may frame interactions, including social action and communication. In this case, it may not only be a frame of observation but also a context of action.

Clearly, an object can’t be a context at the same time. The term “object” is inadequate. And leads us to think in objective terms. The power of social technologies, in connecting individuals across time and space through constructed contexts of people, action, and content is in relations. Social objects needs social relations.

We have seen that the relations among individuals sharing a “social object” aren’t really social. They are imputed to the individuals, but not on the basis of shared social activity or communication.

Social relations are interests people take in each other. Not in objects. Perhaps “social objects” should be called “objects of interest.” But the term “object” is still misleading.

Relations are dynamic. Given two individuals, relations are qualities of forces that connect those individuals. Because each individual is a subject, the relation doesn’t “exist” in any material sense. Two people don’t “like” each other equally. One likes the other more; one likes the other romantically; one admires the other; one is loyal to the other.

Like the concept of social objects, our concepts of relations are too simple. The dynamics and differences of relations have been reduced and simplified in order to arrive at objective descriptions. The result? Monological gestures like the “Like,” which we all know to be vastly over-simplified. To like something, someone, to want to share by liking, to want to get attention by liking — the reasons for social action are explained only by an individual’s interests.

It must be clear now to anyone in the social technology industry that our ideas of objects and relations have been too reductive. The interests people take in their favorite activities, and the reasons people indicate their interests, are not captured by the gestural and topical interfaces of social networking tools. That’s only to be expected. Technical systems and designs can’t possibly match the complexity of social context and interaction.

But for those of us involved in the design, development, or professional use of social tools, these simplifications seem worth reflecting on. Enormous amounts of money invested in companies, communities, and ancillary business (marketing, advertising) depend on the approximations of these “shared” interests and systems of sharing and communicating.

Have companies even determined whether it is the topic of interest, or relationships among those having an interest in it, that offers greater potential value? Have they even considered which provides an opportunity communicate to these target “audiences?” And whether they should communicate about the object, or the person — the topic, or the member of the audience?

It seems to me that having radically simplified our understanding of people and content into concepts and ideas that serve the purpose of justifying technical investments, design, and marketing and advertising, we are ready for new and better thinking. We can frame our design concepts and marketplace descriptions with much greater accuracy.

Certainly, design has been ready to accommodate insights of psychology, sociology, and media theory for a while now. And business thinking is surely ripe to graduate beyond simple concepts of “friends” and “likes.” Better descriptions of both social technologies and industry opportunities are warranted. And the design community seems the place to start.




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  • Michael David Simborg

    When I try and share this on facebook, I am given only the option to send this article to the author. Major FAIL. I assume Adrian is familiar with the piece he wrote. I’d like to be able to share it with my “social graph”.