Thursday, March 12, 2009

Social Object Theory for Social Network Design

Razorfish publishes incredibly long and incredibly useful reports. Their Digital Outlook report (download here; be patient) came out last week. I want to get back to some other issues in a future post, but the chapter that really caught my attention—because it’s new to me, although not new—is the idea of social objects. This quote from the report is a good introduction for people like me:

Engeström described social object theory as the belief that all successful social media interactions and ventures center on an object — “the reason people connect with each particular other and not something else.” Another way to describe a social object is as the centerpiece in a dialogue between two or morepeople. People don’t just talk — they tend to talk “around” objects. For example, if I’m speaking to my mother about the flowers I sent her, the flowers are the social object. (p. 59)

There’s a lot of buzz in the blogosphere at the moment about designing social networking sites around social objects. According to Razorfish social objects can take many forms (hence the cutsey clip art) and they aren’t necessarily viral. My corollary is that a good marketing approach makes them viral. Your network can be built around a single object (iPhone, for example) or multiple objects. For example, Flickr is composed of objects that have been made social by making them searchable and sharable.


The advice to marketers includes an early decision on your social object—in advertising terms, it could be your big idea. Figure out what makes the object social or how you can make it social by tagging for search and tracking for measurement. The objects have to be authentic and relevant to your audience. Some social objects retain their sociability for a long time (think Burger King’s subservient chicken) and some go away very quickly (think the same company’s short-lived Whopper Sacrifice program, which drew fire from Facebook).

There’s more; I encourage you to read at least the chapter (pp.58–63) if not the entire report.


One of the most articulate proponents of social object theory is Jyri Engeström, the founder of Jaiku. I encourage you to page through his presentation for an understanding of the theory and its marketing applications.

Then I’d encourage you to think about something else. If we build satisfying experience around the objects (I’m thinking about an incredible whale watch I experienced last spring; you could think about a motorcycle ride or a great glass of wine if you'd rather), that will add to their value and hence their sociability.

The take-away is that people don’t just talk—they talk about something. They don’t just share—they share something they perceive to be of value with others they believe will also value it.

How are you going to identify your key object(s) and ensure they have value for your target audience?

3 comments:

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