Thinking about social objects and limbo dancing

There was a time when people had real beards and real names and real jobs. People such as Theodatus Garlick pictured below, one of the world’s first plastic surgeons, and perhaps one of the world’s first daguerrotype photographers. [Incidentally, I am grateful to the delightfully named Increase Lapham, whose wonderful collection of cartes-de-visites and cabinet cards is made accessible by the Wisconsin Historical Society, whom I must also thank.]

There was a time when it became possible to capture unusual juxtapositions of famous people, such as the photograph below, where a young Mohandas Karamchand (“Mahatma”) Gandhi appears to be wistfully unaware of his companion, the then somewhat more famous Nobel-winning poet, playwright, musician and novelist Rabindranath Tagore. My thanks to the Rare Book Society of India for making the photograph available to me.

There was a time when it became possible to capture incongruous events like this one, of Fidel Castro golfing, apparently with Che Guevara (captured by Alberto Korda, who also took the iconic Che shot that now graces t-shirts the world over):

There was a time when telephone engineers were top-hat-wearing Very Important People, festooned with tools (including some in the top hat) and nonchalantly carrying ladders and cables, as one does…. my thanks to BT Heritage for the photograph. [Incidentally, you might enjoy visiting the TeleFocus service there].

We live in amazing times, where it is possible for me to share such amazing photographs with you. Some hurdles remain, particularly in the context of copyright, but they are easing. Incidentally, this gives me an excuse to publish, for the nth time, my all-time favourite photograph, of an orphan boy hugging his first-ever new pair of shoes. [And the web has made it possible for me to identify the orphanage, the time, the year, the photographer, even the name of the boy!]. Here it is:

So where is this post heading, and what does it have to do with social objects?


Ever since Hugh Macleod spoke to me about social objects, and pointed me towards what Jyri Engestrom had written, I’ve been fascinated by the concept. I had the pleasure of hearing Jyri at Reboot (I think it was in 2008) and he didn’t disappoint, he was excellent.

You know what makes an object “social”? We do. Without us there is no “social”, even if we use objects to extend and enhance that socialness.

Photographs are social objects, which is why it would come as no surprise if Facebook now had more photographs than Flickr. Films are social objects. Songs are social objects. Books. Sporting events. TV programs. Concerts. They’re all social objects.

When we see lists like that, we can start believing that all social objects are “content”, which gets the “rightsholders” of content salivating up the wazoo. Perish the thought.

Content is not what makes an object social. We do.

There was a time when “content” was created by a tiny minority of people, largely because the tools for making that content were elitist in nature. Scarce, expensive, needing specialist skills. To make matters worse, the techniques for distributing and sharing that “content” were also elitist in nature. So people who “owned” that “content” felt like kings.

Now things have changed. There’s been some limbo-dancing. The barriers to entry for creating, publishing and distributing “content” are getting lower by the minute. Which means that the content kings are all dressed up with nowhere to go. And so the only option they think they have is to try and recreate the barriers they used to enjoy, in paradigms where they are technically and economically difficult to recreate.

The most valuable social objects are the ones we create. Our narratives, our stories. Our memories. Our lives. Hopelessly intertwined with our family and friends, our associates, our acquaintances, our colleagues, even our enemies.

We are our stories. We used other, weaker, proxies for our stories at a time when we could not capture, publish and share our own stories. And, as long as there are no paywalls or DRM or suchlike, we will continue to use proxies, but only to augment our stories. They are not the stories. We are. They are not social objects per se. We make them social.

People who used to “own” “content” still have roles to play. While digital content will continue to trend towards free, there are many ways to make money because of that content rather than with that content, the “because effect”. Time-based premia. Analog sales. Authenticity. Merchandising. All the “better than free” ideas that Kevin Kelly tells us about.

As the cost of producing content drops, as the cost of distributing content drops, as the process of creating the content gets more and more democratised, something new happens. We start having too much content. Which means the role of curators increases in importance. Curation is about access, about trust, about relationships, about expertise, about context. So the content rightsholders of old have an opportunity to excel, since they have the inside track to providing these. We used to go to them for content they generated. Now we can go to them for content we generate. That is, if they stop their paywall tomfoolery. We pay for service, not for content.

I think that’s what Andrew Savikas was trying to say.

So remember, content does not a social object make. We make objects social. Our stories. Our narratives. Our memories. Our photographs. Our songs. Our shared experiences.

Back to Hugh Macleod, who taught me so much about social objects. Thank you Hugh.

As Hugh says, it’s time to …..remember who we are.

9 thoughts on “Thinking about social objects and limbo dancing”

  1. For a minute I thought there was a chink of insightful light. What? BT presenting an opportunity for people to access and share some heritage?

    No, not that. It was the same old corporate dumb thing. Arriving at the famously horrible website one is greeted with a money basket and sample photos replete with emblazoned prohibition. £8 for a hi-rez digital copy. Paywall tomfoolery indeed! Another opportunity lost for a corporate monolith to earn some kudos.

    JP, the people responsible might take a leaf from your book. You’re clearly up to speed. Like its sluggish broadband BT appears not to be. In a previous incarnation it was an organisation with a social culture. That got dumped with all the commercialising euphoria of the last twenty years. It would do well now to remember who it was and ask some intelligent questions about who it is going to be in the future.

  2. Which means the role of curators increases in importance.

    Curators, mashups, paywalls, best of collections, velvet ropes, schools of thought, rules of engagement, ….
    The social is us, don’t hand it off to another gate keeper.

    The reason language is not static is because it is social. The reason languages die off is because we don’t renew them. Life is a river and the pools under the silent wisteria are stagnant if they find no exit.

  3. Yes :) The ease of creating content, and the difficulty and cost in creating context, is why many industries are being shaken up, and why the real economic opportunities are for curators. When we change how and why we create content, then we have to look at how we've reshaped the value of context and how curation works effectively.

    I've spent some time digging into new economic realities in photography, and it's why your post here resonated with me so strongly. For reminding me of my love for this topic, thank you.

    and btw, I go back to Kevin's “better than free” post regularly :)

  4. What a great photo (the boy & the shoes).

    And yes to the above. I’ve often said in my presentations that “in an always-on every-which-way connected world, the most important connection to create and maintain is the connection to yourself.”

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