Ever since Hugh first explained to me precisely what he meant by the term “social object”, I’ve been fascinated by the concept. More recently, he’s been writing more about social objects, building on his original thoughts.
I thought he was really on to something, and I told him so. But that was quite some time ago. Now, having passed up the opportunity to repent at leisure, it’s time to share why.
If markets are conversations, then marketing is about the things that conversations are about. Not about placing those things or promoting those things, but about the things themselves.
In the past, as Hugh explains so well, things entered the conversation space via mass media. Centralised. Broadcast. Controlled. Any colour you like as long as it’s black.
Now things are different. To understand how they are different, I’ve been playing with some ideas. See what you think about them, and let me know what you think.
You can have a conversation without a social object. You cannot have a social object without a conversation. It is the conversation that makes the object “social”.
Conversations grow around social objects, much like pearls grow around microscopic dust. Social objects are about growth, they are “live”.
If you try and “inject” a social object into a conversation, then what you get, at best, is a cultured pearl. That’s what mass media did. Mass media tried to farm conversations. And created cultured pearls. Social objects are natural, not artificial.
The Cluetrain guys got this, and were amongst the earliest to understand that the web represented an incredible opportunity. An opportunity to get back to natural conversations, to the mollusks that matter, rather than to farmed or cultured conversations. And the Hughtrain understood Cluetrain. Social objects are about renaissance, about our rediscovering something we used to have before.
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. Social objects are about participation and participants.
Conversations, like molluscs, can be closed. In which case there’s no social object, no microscopic dust. And no pearls. Social objects are open.
As with pearls, conversations behave differently in fresh water and salt water, in rough seas and in protected lagoons. The colour and lustre and shape of conversations is influenced by the environment, the participants, the openness, the ability to grow. Well-rounded conversations are rare, as are the social objects that help achieve this rounding. Good social objects are rare.
Unlike the microscopic dust in natural pearls, social objects are not necessarily irritants. But they can be. Social objects can be irritants.
Similar to the microscopic dust in natural pearls, social objects are unique. Not cookie-cutter. Not assembly-line. Social objects are about long-tail, about diversity.
My thanks to wikipedia for the pearl illustration.