Musing about Social Objects: Molluscs that Matter

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.

14 thoughts on “Musing about Social Objects: Molluscs that Matter”

  1. The critical point is that “good social objects are rare” – too many people think you can designate something a social object and all sorts of magic will follow.

    My perspective has always been that the activity around which a “community” forms has to exist first and the social object follows and might cause the community to coalesce and grow. Unlike cultured pearls, you can’t force communities into existence.

  2. Can I be very practical and ask questions:
    I can’t see the connection between markets and marketing and social objects. Can you explain that one more… as you have explained a social object is seems to me that your blog is a “social object” around which a community has formed.. what then is the relationship with markets and marketing… if this blog is a social object, are you then’marketing’ your ideas. I think that does a disservice to exchange and creativity of the conversation… but perhaps I too am confused.

  3. Nicely put. Pearls of wisdom emerge from natural conversations. Like in the adda you talked about before. Which selects and polishes. Also, which manages to embrace and muffle the loudmouth and the egos that come in and use them in turn as irritants to seed the next conversation, which may then give rise to another pearl in time.

  4. Hmmm.

    Some questions may arise here..

    Why can’t a conversation itself be a ‘social object’? Can one social object be inside another? How do social objects evolve over time, and are rules involved – if so then are those rules, themselves, social objects? If there is an object, must there be a subject? If one subject points out a social object to a second subject, then is there any token by which the second subject can refer to, or even describe, this object unambigously?

    An alternative view would be to talk instead about Social Processes (pace Luhmann et al.). These have no fixed granularity — in the examples on Hugh’s blog, each cases evidences sevcral layers of social process. Social processes can be games in which meaning is established over time, in a normative fashion.

    For example there is a game we play, called Confused of Calcutta. In this game a process calling itself “JP” creates “Blog posts”. Other players in the game choose their own names and create “Blog comments” in which reference is made to “Your blog” and “Hugh’s blog”.

    JP, this is your blog.

    Which is the social object?

  5. And, like actual pearls, a discerning buyer knows the difference between natural (authentic) and cultured (spun) examples. A less informed buyer may not.

  6. Hi JP,
    more about to come, but see things came like TV history channels in some ways (I wrote here : on this subject).
    UGC makes social objects to the bulk, that’s the change in web2.0 state ; it provides one shot and all day long, improvement of our knowledge, senses, feelings and points of view. Maybe we can be only viewers without conversations, it’s a difference we can’t avoid totally, don’t you think ?

  7. I agree with much of what you say – especially the connection between the social objects and conversations.
    Iim interested in the idea of “good” social objects. Good in what sense? True, just, correct, interesting, successful?
    Cultivating (pun intended!) the pearl analogy; are “good” social objects above all valuable -i.e. the market will pay a premium in some sense for them, or to be associated with them, over inferior ones?

Let me know what you think

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