What are Social Objects?

In preparation for my upcoming session at Drupalcon, I’m writing a short series of articles on social networking and learning theory. First up is an article on social objects.

The Social Object, in a nutshell, is the reason two people are talking to each other, as opposed to talking to somebody else. — Hugh Macleod

As humans we like to socialize but in order to socialize, we need a reason to get together. Social objects provide that reason.

Some examples of social objects

You and John are coworkers on a team working on the launch of a new microsite for your company. Your company, team, and project are all social objects.

You and Fred are both Information Systems majors and have become friends as you study for tests and do homework together. Your major, classes, and homework assignments are social objects.

Your wife wants to throw a big birthday party for you so she can invite all of her and your friends. The birthday party is a social object.

Sue holds a tea party every Sunday evening. She invites all her friends and they come as they can. The tea party is a social object.

Social objects bind us together.

The more important a social object is to us, the stronger it’ll bind us to others who also hold that social object. I love Drupal and spend a good part of my time using it to build cool websites. As I meet others who also loves Drupal, we immediately have a strong connection through that shared social object.

When you meet someone new or go on a first date, you start asking questions hoping to find “something in common” or shared social objects.

If you date someone for a few months then break up, the reason you’ll often give is, “we just didn’t have much in common.”

Families develop traditions. My family eats fancy sandwiches each Christmas Eve. The shared memories and rituals we’ve developed bind us together. Traditions are social objects.

Social objects come in all sorts of types and strength

Good social objects are complex and have lots of hooks around which to start conversations. A football game has history, statistics, personalities, rivalries, and a plot with heroes, goats, and momentum shifts. All of which provide rich meat for discussion before, during and after the game.

We change our behavior because of social objects

If your coworkers are NBA fans and there’s a big game one night, you’ll watch the game so you can talk about it with your coworkers the next day. You buy that silly new iPhone app so you can share it with your coworkers. You join Facebook because all your friends are there. The NBA game, your new iPhone app, and Facebook are all social objects.

But it’s important to remember that it’s not the social objects that matter but people. Loving and being loved is what matters. Social objects are just the tool we use to make it happen.

Next I’ll write about how social object theory can help us build better social networking websites.

Posted February 21, 2009

Kyle Mathews lives and works in San Francisco building beautiful things. You should follow him on Twitter




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