How to design a social networking site using social objects

Posted February 27, 2009

This is the second in a series of articles I’m writing to help me prep for my session next week at Drupalcon. The first article was my attempt to define social objects. This article outlines how to use social object theory to design better social networking sites.

First a review of what are social objects. “The Social Object is the reason two people are talking to each other, as opposed to talking to somebody else.” People are social creatures. Social objects are the tools we use to create opportunities to socialize with other people. And lastly, for all their importance, objects are just a means to an end — the end is loving and being loved.

So social objects are a cool theory but how can they help me design my new social networking site (or fix my broken one)?

Jyri Engestrom, founder of Jaiku, answered this question in his blog post, ”Why some social network services work and others don’t --- Or: the case for object-centered sociality.

He argues:

the term ‘social networking’ makes little sense if we leave out the objects that mediate the ties between people. Think about the object as the reason why people affiliate with each specific other and not just anyone. For instance, if the object is a job, it will connect me to one set of people whereas a date will link me to a radically different group. This is common sense but unfortunately it’s not included in the image of the network diagram that most people imagine when they hear the term ‘social network.’ The fallacy is to think that social networks are just made up of people. They’re not; social networks consist of people who are connected by a shared object.

The social networking services that really work are the ones that are built around objects. And, in my experience, their developers intuitively ‘get’ the object-centered sociality way of thinking about social life. Flickr, for example, has turned photos into objects of sociality. On the objects are the URLs. EVDB,, and evnt focus on events as objects.

Jyri wrote further that networking sites not based on social objects tend to not work as they are built on a flawed model for human interaction.

The steps then for designing your social networking site around social objects are first, pick the objects around which people will socialize, next, decide what users can do to the objects and finally, design how people can share the objects or other wise socialize around the objects. Or as Chris Messina put it, “define the objects, name the verbs, network the objects”

Let’s look at some popular social networking sites and see how they’ve built their sites around social objects.

Flickr’s social objects are pictures. People can do the following to pictures (the verbs): comment, annotate, tag, add them to sets and to groups, and share pictures through their URL.

YouTube’s social objects are videos. People can watch, comment, rank, favorite, flag, create playlists of, and share objects.

Dogster’s social objects are dogs (obviously). People can create profiles (for their dogs), give gifts, adopt other dogs, post videos and pictures, and find dog related businesses near their homes.

Drupal’s social objects are Drupal (the software), the various modules in contrib and core, documentation pages, individual issues, and the various larger subtopics within the community such as documentation, social networking, education, and every other group found at (each group is a social object).

Around issues in core and contrib, Drupalers can write issues, discuss issues on Twitter, IRC, email, blogs, enlist help on the issues through the same channels, and finally write code to solve issues.

Drupal, the social object, brings people to Drupalcon and various other meetups around the world. Drupal draws us to read Drupal planet and comment on people’s blogs. Drupal draws us to comment and support other developers building sites with Drupal.

As is often mentioned, the strength of Drupal is not the code but the community. The ideals and goals of Drupal (the idea not software) is what draws more and more people to the Drupal community. And as positive interaction builds upon positive interaction, the social object Drupal becomes more and more powerful.

Jyri commented upon this in a keynote he delivered last year. There he showed a picture he’d taken of himself and his boy in a forest. He said this picture had value but when he placed the picture on Flickr and his friends commented on it the picture became much more valuable.

The picture had intrinsic value as an ‘object’ but became much more valuable when it became a ‘social object’. The comments by Jyri’s friends turned his picture into a social object. Or as Hugh likes to put it, “social gestures beget social objects.” And as social gestures accumulate, the more valuable the social object becomes.

JP Rangaswami created, what I think, is a brilliant metaphor for understanding how social objects grow through conversations. He compared the growth in value of a social object to the gradual adding of new layers to a pearl by an oyster.

He wrote:

Conversations grow around social objects, much like pearls grow around microscopic dust. Social objects are about growth, they are “live”.

A successful social object is one that has layer upon layer of conversation created around it; as the number of participants increases, social objects enjoy network effects.

So to sum things up. To create a thriving social networking site, first choose good social objects for the core of your site and then create ways for people to share the social objects and socialize around them.

My next post will be on social learning or how social object theory can help us design websites which help people with similar interests connect to each other and learn together.

Tagged with social software | social objects | social networking

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Kyle's profile picKyle Mathews lives and works in Seattle building useful things. You should follow him on Twitter. Currently exploring what's next and open to consulting.