Social objects

[author’s note: I wrote most of this post nine months ago, but never got around to finishing it. It seemed an appropriate companion to my recent series of “Social [X]” posts, so I added a couple paragraphs to the end and am posting it.]

I was reading a gapingvoid post, and saw this wonderful quote (for reference, gapingvoid is the blog of Hugh MacLeod, who’s using social media to advertise for a wine company among many other things):

The main thesis is that it’s not the wine per se that is interesting, it’s the conversations that happen around the wine that is interesting. And that is true for all social objects. People matter. Objects don’t.

I love this quote because it gets at an idea that is very important to me, which is that nothing matters without people. I never got around to writing a This I Believe essay, but my premise was going to be that the most important thing in this world is the connection we make with each other. All of the objects and experiences in the world are means by which to satisfy the end of connecting to others.

Why do sports matter? Sports are just grown men playing kids’ sports, and yet we are willing to pay for the privilege to spend hours watching them. But it’s not about the sport itself, or the game. It’s about the connection with the other fans, about the instant communities that watching sports creates.

To illustrate this point, imagine somebody that cared about a sport that nobody else cared about – let’s say javelin throwing. This hypothetical person obsessively follows javelin competitions, can quote stats of the top throwers, etc. Most of us would consider this person to be a loser, and borderline insane. And yet they’re doing nothing different than fans of sports like football or baseball – they just don’t have the community in place to validate their behavior. Being a sports fan without connecting with other people is pointless.

I’m trying to think of objects or experiences that don’t qualify as “social objects”. Even though purely individual experiences like riding a motorcycle down the Pacific Coast Highway can be enjoyable, they only mean something when we share the story of the experience with somebody else. When we get a nifty new toy, we don’t keep it to ourselves – we want to show it off to our friends. When we find a new restaurant, we want to take others to it or at least tell them about it. We watch movies and read books and are disappointed when others haven’t because then we can’t talk about our experience with them.

I think that this social object concept can change the rules in a market. One of the reasons that the Nintendo Wii has been staggeringly successful is that Nintendo realized that gaming was not about the game, but about the social experience, and designed the Wii accordingly. Apple’s renaissance has a similar tone. Saturn was initially successful because they realized that a car wasn’t just a car, but an experience and a community which they bolstered by hosting homecoming events for Saturn owners to meet. Rock Band has been a recent phenomenon that illustrates that the games that people most enjoy are the ones that they can play together.

The Internet has been a boon to making these sorts of connections. No matter how obscure your passion is, there’s a community for it on the Internet. Sports of all kinds, crafts, do-it-yourself, hipster music, social software, Buffy the Vampire Slayer – okay, those aren’t particularly obscure, but they are the ones I know about.

This gets back to a point I made in my social technologies post – when social and technology mix, it’s the social that is interesting. We’ve been focused on the physical technology, but it’s the newly possible social communities engendered by such technology that change markets (and possibly the world!). Twitter/Facebook/LiveJournal are interesting because now I have an ambient awareness of my friends that enables me to maintain communities with them across physical boundaries. I know more about my friends that keep up such accounts regardless of where they are than I do about friends that live in the same city as me. These technologies are changing our communities and creating new ways for these communities to interact with themselves, and that sort of meta-interaction will accelerate the evolution of communities.

Hugh Macleod has continued to emphasize the importance of social objects – he believes that any marketer whose product isn’t a social object is in big trouble. See Social Objects for Beginners for another take. I’m more interested in the change in viewpoint when we stop focusing on the object, and focus on the connections the object creates. I could get really esoteric now and explain how this all relates to actor-network theory, but I’ll refrain. I’m also not sure how to tie this into creating new social technologies or what this has to do with social capitalism. Maybe one of you will make the connection for me.

3 thoughts on “Social objects

  1. I think you must be an extrovert. There are lots of worthwhile activities that are done as a solitary individual…writing, for example, or simple reflection. Not everything is about collaboration and “teamwork”.

    And lest I be accused of being anti-social, I should say that I’m a teacher who has created a lot of small group activities for my students. But social learning can easily become more social than learning. I don’t want a student turning in a group project, I want them to have done reading, to have thought about the topic, considered it, and taken the time to craft a personal and meaningful response to the question or issue posed. These are activities that could be done as part of a group but I will only know that a student has learned if I can see what he can produce by him or herself. It’s best done alone.

    This is just one example but there are others I could come up with. You can exercise with others but spending time walking the dog by myself gives me an opportunity to think about the day that has passed and what lies ahead. Walking with another person would make the time pass more quickly but the silence would be full of chatter. I’m not against conversation it’s just that with iPods and televisions everywhere, the chance for a little silence (except the chirping of birds or the distance sound of a train) are moments I cherish.

    Bottom line: Not everything is better when you do it with a group of people and each person should know how to appreciate the solitary moments of life without having every moment filled with distractions. JMHO.

  2. Eric,

    I’m always impressed by how well you are able to articulate thoughts on different subject matter, and integrate it into your own life. You don’t know me, and I can’t even remember how i stumbled on to your blog a year ago or so(though i think it had to do with a google search titled “moving to new york” back when I was considering a similar move), but I always appreciate your social commentary.

    This post in particular was striking to me, as I believe you have hit the nail on the head in a way I’ve never really considered (or thought to consider before). I’m a fan of some pretty awful professional sports teams, and there is never anything as satisfying as opining their plight with other members of the fanbase. Your post made me realize when I’m watching a game, and a particularly lame outcome to a play has occured, the first thing I do is text every person I know who has a similar interest vested in the game to complain about it. It left me thinking, what would I do if there was no other accessible fanbase for me to associate with? Would the highs be as high, or the lows be as low when celebrating for the team?

    Additionally, my dad is an MIT alum, and was very amused and waxing whimsical at your vocabulary section.

    Anyway, sorry for the long post, always appreciate your commentary. Cheers.

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