The strong and weak case for social objects

Adrian Chan wrote an interesting blog post last week arguing against the common notion of the social object. I think Adrian’s mostly right. Social objects are useful, but the arguments in favor of social objects are made way too strongly, blinding designers to a wealth of opportunities that support the interactions surrounding objects, and not just the objects themselves.

The idea of social objects was crystallized in 2005 by Jyri Engestrom, building on a 1997 academic paper by Karin Knorr-Cetina. Later on Rashmi Sinha created an excellent presentation elaborating on many aspects of the overall social object design pattern.

In comments, Jyri makes a categorical case that “the object gives us a reason to talk to each other.” This strong version of the argument fails. Jyri brings the example of Linked In, a social network where people don’t simply connect to connect, they connect because of a social object, a job that binds them. But even this seemingly clear and sensible argument about LinkedIn doesn’t work very well. Even in Linked In, the interactions aren’t mediated by “a job”, but an industry or field, and topics and informally defined communities within that.

The weaker form of the case for social objects is valid – if you are a LinkedIn designer you definitely want to enable people to represent their jobs and find others who are co-workers or alumni. But the strong case fails. In fact, using the design pattern in Linked In overly strongly causes a design failure, and is the reason that I often use Facebook or Twitter instead of LInked in to represent a professional connection! Linked in requires you to say how you know someone within an explicit taxonomy – a job or institution. But if I know someone within an informally constituted social design community, say met at a meetup, I need to know their email to join on Linked in. And I don’t bother, I use Twitter or Facebook instead.

Even in Slideshare, which Rashmi Sinha designed around the idea of social objects, people are sharing objects – slides – within a variety of social contexts including conferences, marketing lead generation, technical standards development, humor, church sermons, that involve many sorts of social relations & interactions. If you are designing SlideShare, you want to look closely at the object to figure out common things that people want to do with slides presentations, such as rate and comment. And then you might want to look at the broader set of interactions for other ways of providing value to people – such marketing lead gen tools, or conference-related services.

As Adrian Chan observes, what’s meaningful isn’t just the object, but a set of social interactions and practices that surround the object. An excellent example of objects that subordinate to social dynamics is the story of Farmville. What’s compelling about the design of Farmville – what makes people obsessed with playing it – isn’t the game tokens, but the set of social obligations around the exchange of these tokens. Another example is the use of Formspring by teenagers to harass and bully each other, see this post by danah boyd.

Out of curiousity, I went back and read the original Knorr-Cetina article, and was not persuaded by her theoretical case that objects are in fact the center of sociality. The article used broad sociological generalities – people are alienated individuals in a knowledge economy – to make the case that objects have now become the elements that draw people together in the absence of other social ties.

In her focus on objects, Knorr-Cetina appears to ignores large swaths of history, sociology/anthropology and social theory about the social practices that bring people together. She writes “in a knowledge society, object relations substitute for and become constitutive of social relations… for example, objects serve as centering and integrating devices for regimes of expertise that transcend an expert’s lifetime and create the collective conventions and moral order communitarians are concerned about.”

But there have long have been social conventions and processes and bodies of knowledge in various fields. The transition to modernity extracted knowledge from heritable social structures into subcultures that are communicated through networks and institutions with greater social mobility. Just to pick one quick example, Elizabeth Eistenstein did a good job of writing about this transition in the context of the spread of printing. But Eisenstein wrote that printing and books facilitated these changes and practices, not that books *were* the changes and practices. Why use specific objects as synechdoche for the swath of the practices, networks and institutions that enable knowledge discourse?

Perhaps there is some academic or theoretical context that I am missing, which makes the article more meaningful than it appears. In any rate, going back to the source does not seem to provide justification for the “strong case” for social objects, which is that they are *the primary cause* for people to communicate, rather than being part of a matrix of practices, relationships, and things. The now-familiar social object design pattern is good and useful – it doesn’t need to be done away with, but it is limited, and there are more aspects of social design that become visible when one considers the interactions around the objects.

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