What’s Up With Social Objects?

The concept of social objects is pretty widely used in social interaction design, but we’re missing a solid definition of what social objects are. Or, whether they really even exist.

The most common use of the term “social object” refers to shared online resources around which interactions develop and coalesce. Examples could include gifts on Facebook, videos, or what have you. The object sort of serves as a shared object, a focus of attention, an actual digital object, and so on. And the object plays a role in governing or informing interactions; we know what objects mean and what to do with them (give them, comment on them, play them, etc.)

But the definition of social object is a bit too fuzzy for me, and for a couple reasons.

Thinking in objects

Firstly, as designers, the object plays into our interest in having an object language — things to design and design for. We are biased to think in terms of objects; objects belong to the world of interface design. So there is a possibility that where there is actually other stuff going on, we focus on the object out of our own interest. (By analogy, consider the anthropologist who focuses her attention on these social objects: a ceremonial mask, money, a wedding ring, a football. How much of the rituals, pastimes, social and cultural practices belong to the object and are explained by object properties? Not much….)

Secondly, objects are easily confused with their properties, attributes, qualities, uses, and so on. This is just how language works. We name a thing and give it attributes, and having done so we have a stable concept. Plato’s ideal chair, vs all real chairs. Concepts then substitute for the real thing. It’s possible that we’re actually talking about the concept of social objects, and not social objects as used.

Which is a more accurate description of gifting on Facebook: the relationship between two friends and the practice of giving gifts on birthdays, or the graphic of the beer mug? The more accurate description of user interaction would be that which explains the practice of gift giving, the symbolic act of presenting a gift, the Facebook tradition of recognizing birthdays, and the social space in which gifts are seen by others such that birthdays create a cause for a stretch of social interaction.

Shared cultural resources

We know that social objects are a shared cultural resource — their meanings are culturally context-specific. We know that many social practices involve social objects. We know that in the digital domain, social objects are unique in that there is no original object but many copies; that an object can appear in many places at once.

For example, I give you a beer mug and it is on your wall but in my stream also — same object, but not really, since one is the one I gave you and yours is the one you received. We’re really talking about a representation, not an object. In other words, the object represents the act.

Representating acts

If the social object is sometimes the representation of an act, then perhaps the focus should be on the act, and on interaction practices, less on the object. The act of recognizing a friend’s birthday by gifting a graphic beer mug is a better explanation of the user activity. The object is merely a representational vehicle by which the activity is sedimented into a mediated, visible, socially recognizable form.

Social objects, then, might be better understood as common forms. Forms in which many kinds of graphics, rich media, even textual forms (for a tweet is a social object as soon as it is retweeted) permit diverse kinds of social interaction. The object, in other words, is not an object, but a form.

If social objects are a form of representation, we can expand our understanding of what they mean. If a form has visual content, it is an image. If it has linguistic content, it is a text or an utterance. If it is a video, it is televisual.

If it is a gift using a graphic, such as the beer mug, then it is both a symbolic token (as described by traditions of gift giving — the gift is an object with meaning inherited from the tradition of gift exchange, and specified by meanings belonging to the object: price, ownership, status, utility, etc) and an image. The beer mug graphic indicates “a drink” (this is basic theory of representation stuff: the image is a beer mug); the act of giving it refers to “get you a drink for your birthday”. The interaction, in other words, is a symbolically-mediated one, referencing a content (get you a beer) and a cultural practice (on your birthday).

It’s all about interactions

We can now see that the interaction situates and contextualizes the object. Not the other way around. The object doesn’t tell us what’s going on, nor does it define uses and interactions. Those belong to practices — namely, practices in which objects are used.

There’s another reason that the object should take a subordinate role to the interaction. Tweets are social objects. Tweets are utterances that take a form, and which, given that twitter is a distribution platform, can be circulated, referenced, recontextualized (posted to streams, blogs, surfaced in search, etc), and so on. We miss out on the significance of the “commodity” form of mediated talk if we think in terms of objects. Because we think of objects as things.

But clearly, anything that can be mediated and used as a shared resource can be a social object. And this includes tweets, things, and much more. So if the world of social objecst includes linguistic statements, gestural tokens (emoticons), signs, numbers (is a follower number a social object? it certainly is the object of a lot of social activity!), images, graphics, avatars, and on and on. We would have to admit that not only is the idea of social objects so broad as to be almost meaningless; but that it’s lost any critical or explanatory power. A concept too big to give us any guidance.

So that’s where I am on social objects. We need a better description. Personally, I think we can borrow from linguistics, semiotics, and anthropology. I would argue that the interaction domain has primary importance, and that the subdomain is symbolically-mediated interaction.

Within this, then, types include:

  • linguistic statements;
  • symbolic tokens;
  • currencies;
  • representational objects;
  • images;
  • gestural signs;
  • signs;
  • numbers;
  • rich media (video, etc — stuff playable online);
  • bookmarks;
  • avatars;
  • etc

Using the disciplines I just mentioned, we would be able to use:

  • linguistics for linguistic statements;
  • semiotics for signs;
  • representational theory for representations (looks like something) and images (is of something);
  • cultural anthro for exchange practices and their token objects;
  • media theory for numbers (stats, counts, etc);
  • and so on.

The types are then unpacked in the contexts of their use, in their contribution to interactions, in their meanings, and as expressions of intent and guidelines for interpretation. And, most importantly, we would be able to account for the enormously innovative and unique ways in which symbolically-mediated interactions can refer to all manner of meaningful activities online, from social games to Second Life (which is, kind of, a total social object world!), from gifting to retweeting, and so on. It’s a bigger project, but the online world is incredibly rich. And I’m convinced that we might misinterpret what’s going on around it if we allow ourselves to think of objects as objects.

Adrian Chan

Adrian Chan is a social media expert and social interaction theorist at Gravity7. You can follow him on twitter at /gravity7

20 comments on this article

  1. Andrew Merryweather on

    Interesting post.

    I think there’s another seam of thought you could mine here: archaeology.

    Speaking as an interaction designer who was trained as an archaeologist, I’ve found (but not properly explored) some productive common ground where the disciplines meet.

    In simple terms, as an archaeologist I looked at objects and tried to deduce behaviours and thoughts. I now look at behaviour and thought and try to create objects which enhance or complement or shape those behaviours and thoughts.

    Going from object to behaviour is the difficult one, partly because of the nature of the relationship between objects and social interactions, as you describe in your post. Archaeologists usually have only objects, and those objects’ attributes. It’s extraordinarily difficult most of the time to work outwards from those static objects to the complex socio-cultural contexts in which those objects were created and used.

    I have a feeling the body of theory archaeologists work with to bridge that conceptual gap can tell us interesting things about virtual beer mugs – or, more importantly, about the people who interact with them – if we dig deeply enough.

  2. Love it when UX’ers get all philosophical 🙂

    Just wondering about your definition of shared cultural resource and the sharing of a social object between cultures (thus potentially significantly altering the meaning attached to that cultural object) – your definition seems to exclude inter-cultural sharing …

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  8. Andrew, Nathaniel,

    If I seemed to exclude inter or cross cultural exchange around objects I didn’t mean to. But I would subordinate the object to cultural references. An Obama video posted on a dem site vs a reputlican site, for example, will result in comments of opposing political views. The commentary in this case provides the meaning context in which the object is reference; meaning not being an attribute of the object but subord to interpretation.

    Archaeology is definitely an interesting source of concepts. Again tho, I meant to suggest that its not really the object but its relations that’s interesting. I’ll attempt a more theoretical write up at some point. My sense is that social objects have been treated a bit too literally, where the concepts that gave rise to the discussion of social objects were originally as much about the object world and object relations, including object world-subject relations.

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  10. Justin on

    “We can now see that the interaction situates and contextualizes the object. Not the other way around.”

    What about the “ergonomics” or dare I say it “affordances” of social objects? Often we are unaware of a social interaction until we discover artifacts used in its practice (archeology is a good example here too). While there is some explicit analysis that goes on in determining the practice at work, a lot of the time we go primarily on intuitions about the uses of an object, by virtue of the behaviours it facilitates. Interaction design, at its best, requires no explanation – and this is especially impressive when we are introduced to a world of objects that interact with one another in ways that make their own relationships explicit. This would be impossible if we had to know the practices first.

    That said, I agree with the point that treating social artifacts as pure objects, independently of their social practices is mistaken. But then again, I don’t think there are any pure objects, except maybe in physics. All tangible, tactile objects are placeholders for behaviour – or maybe we’d better say incitements – rather than ever being simple things.

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  12. Justin,

    Completely agree with you that we can take affordances into question. I think I touched on that as object properties in this or a different post. One might then distinguish between affordances tied to object properties, social affordances (sharing, forwarding, “giving”, tag etc) and communication and social interaction affordances (comment on; tweet; rate; tag, etc).

    –the object property affordances = object specific and “grow” object specific data on the object in question (number of, views, etc)
    –social affordances = object’s ability to be distributed, aggregated, disaggregated, embedded, played, etc
    –social interaction and communication affordances = social uses that capture communication and interaction attached to the object, about the object, accumulated as object is distributed, etc

    I agree that the social practices may not be visible or entirely available, but I don’t think all possible or probable object-related practices are proscribed by the object. As with any social interaction, context can be re-contextualized, frames can be reframed. In this sense, the relations an object takes up to users, contexts, other objects, etc in practices, in my view, do more to shape social interaction than does the object.

    So I regard an object as a reference more than as a contextual constraint. That was the gist of my critique — that we should pay as much attention to object relations as we do to objects, and that we tend to over-attribute interaction to the object, and under-appreciate relations.

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  15. nice post – been head down so I missed it apols.

    The term *object* is the key thing here – and possibly ‘object’ is too abstract to help us out here. We’ve been using the term ‘artifact’ lately to help us get a little more concrete.. then we can start to build on some interesting thinking around artifacts coming out of the UX, HCI and Design communities.

    eg Klaus Krippendorf’s ideas on artifacts in The Semantic Turn (link below) are pretty interesting in this regard: particularly where he describes the new kinds of artifacts that come under design consideration http://bit.ly/bFYouw

  16. Jeremy,

    The artifact is interesting. The notion of “degrees of artificiality,” though, I have a problem with in this case, as I’d like to be able to account for items circulated by retweets and status message or news feed items. I think that where messaging is the activity, it should be simple to describe objects related by means of how they are referenced. Again, it’s less important to me to find a new term, or to redefine object — more important to recognize the importance of relations.

    Thanks for the tip, the book looks interesting.

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