Social is the plural of personal: a continuation of yesterday’s post

Yesterday, in my first post on the subject, I said:

“Social” is not a layer. “Social” is not a feature. “Social” isn’t a product.

Social is about bringing being human back into business. About how we conduct business. About why we conduct business.

Social is something in people’s hearts, in people’s beings, in their DNA.

Man is born social.

Many companies were not.


Why weren’t the companies social? After all, business used to be social. People always bought from people, sold to people. They knew each other, knew where they lived, what they did. People were in relationship.

So what changed? I can’t be sure, but I can surmise.

People wanted to grow their businesses, to “scale”. And, using the technology of the day, ostensibly built around assembly-line thinking, scaling began with standardised identification and nomenclature, then probably went through some form of homogenisation to reduce standard deviation, and finally process optimisation to elongate the mean time between failures.

So I guess customers had to resemble parts in a manufacturing process. Everyone was allocated a number. And since customers did business with many businesses, everyone was allocated lots of numbers. It didn’t matter what the number was called: customer number, account number, roll number, ledger number. Customers were numbers.  Lots of numbers.

The dehumanisation had begun. Next step was to optimise the workload by making it switchable. So, as many of us experienced in many retail environments, particularly in banking, we saw traditional relationships sundered, as the people with the relationships were themselves standardised and moved around, as they became standardised, transferable, exchangeable, replaceable. Sometimes, if you were lucky, they were promoted to cover a range of outlets, and your outlet was one of them. But for the most part, the people you knew were moved around until you didn’t know them any more.

Now that we’d all been made into homogeneous numbers, and now that the historical relationships were systematically torn up and thrown away, there was still one more thing to do before the dehumanisation could be completed. And that was to remove all discretion from the people you actually dealt with at the till, at the counter, at the coalface. To make everything so systematic that the person you dealt with might as well have been an ATM. All rules and no relationship.

The dehumanisation was complete. Now, finally, the “real” customer looked and felt like the “model” customers that were researched, sampled, broadcast-advertised to, channelled, influenced, controlled. Any colour you like, any car you like, as long as it was a black Model T. And the “real” staff acted and behaved exactly like the machines that were being designed to replace them. And business grew and nobody complained. Nothing was wrong with that picture.

Until the Cluetrain guys came along and suggested that perhaps that was not the case. That perhaps there was something a teensy bit wrong with the picture. [Obviously they were not the only ones doing the pointing out. Howard Rheingold, Eric Raymond, Karim Lakhani, Clay Shirky, Steven Johnson et al on communities and emergent behaviour; John Hagel, John Seely Brown, Don Tapscott, Chris Meyer et al on how the digital context was changing business; Carlota Perez, Yochai Benkler, Eric Beinhocker on the implications of all this in markets and in finance; Tom Malone, Andrew McAfee, Andrew Abbott et al on how work was changing as a result of all this; Albert-Lazslo Barabasi, Duncan Watts, Clay Spinuzzi on the connectedness and networks aspects of all this; Esther Dyson and Tim O’Reilly, both personally as well as professionally, in what they said and what they enabled the publication of. The list is by no means exhaustive, and I am sure I’ve left a pile of key people/readings out. But what I was trying to show was that change was afoot, that something big was happening. And it all revolved around networks not hierarchies, empowerment at the edge, community-based value creation and the continued dance of Moore’s Law, Metcalfe’s Law and Gilder’s Lemma.

Something big was happening. With the customer moving to the front and centre of the stage.

Demanding that things become personal. Again.

Walmart had figured out that if you could aggregate distribution points virtually, you could deliver economies of scale over a wider area. Amazon took that learning, and made every home the edge of the distribution network. Facebook went further, and made every person the centre of the distribution network.

Business was becoming personal. Again.

There may be a million reasons why business had stopped being personal; my explanations above should not be taken as gospel, just as one possible set of reasons. There may be a million reasons why business may become personal again; I’ve tried to explain that there was a whole zeitgeist driving towards that change, and that the change is happening now. Again, don’t take this as a conclusive analysis, just as a set of possibilities. These are not things I want to imbue with cloaks of certainty.

What is important is that change is happening, and that change is happening now. That business is becoming personal again.

What does that mean? Is it just a sound-bite? Or, as Shakespeare may have preferred to describe it, is it just a tale?

“a tale. Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury. Signifying nothing”

I guess some companies hoped that customers would behave like terracotta warriors. Standardised, standing in line. Spoken to and unable to speak back. [Unable to listen either, but who cared?}


The more enlightened companies probably realised that customers would prefer to retain part of their humanity, so they didn’t think terracotta warrior, they probably imagined “calm and anaesthetic labour ward, with everything in its place”:


Doesn’t that picture amaze you? Where and how did they find a labour ward that looked like that? [The picture is taken from a Practical Parenting series in New Zealand].

Instead, customers were human. Distinctive in their differences. Strengthened by their socialness. More like this photo from Steve Snedeker:


Some businesses are happy not to scale, but to focus on quality of service within a boutique market. Some are happy not to have any relationships with customers, working strictly on a pile-them-high-sell-them-cheap model, cost leadership being their aim.

And then you have the rest. Businesses that have woken up, that would like to have personal relationships with customers, and somehow to make those personal relationships scale.

Can such businesses exist? Is it possible to scale while remaining personal? I think yes. Provided.

Provided people understand the plural of personal is social.

I buy regularly from Abebooks, a collection of small bookshops that allied to use a common digital infrastructure in order to scale and achieve geographic reach. They were bought by Amazon some years ago. And then apparently left alone by Amazon, for some strange reason….. my accounts remain separate, the Amazon recommendation engine does not work on my Abebook purchases, the Amazon review process has not yet made its way into Abebook world. But I’m happy. Because I get the simplicity and convenience of a very large inventory across thousands of bookshops, a built-in price comparator, one-click fulfilment processes…. and personal service.

Most of the time, when I get something from an Abebooks shop, the person who ships the book (often the seller) leaves a personal note. Usually signed. Usually saying thank you for your purchase. And over the years I’ve gotten to know some of those people. We have a relationship, we know each other by name, know something about each other, enjoy doing business with each other. And guess what? I’ve never had a problem with Abebooks. Never had to worry about damaged goods or returns or faulty or anything like that.

How can Abebooks do this? I think there are four reasons. One, it’s an aggregation of individual shops, a network rather than a hierarchy. Two, that network retains empowerment at the edge, the people in each shop still remember what a customer looks like and why a customer is important. [As Peter Drucker said “The purpose of business is to create a customer”. We should never never forget that]. Three, they use digital infrastructure to do the mundane repeatable things that digital infrastructures are good at: reducing search costs, taking fulfilment and billing friction away allowing for two-way communications, connecting the participants up. And four, because they care.

Because. They. Care.

When personal is scaled up, we need to ensure that the ability to care is retained and enhanced.

It’s not just about Abebooks. I shop regularly at Etsy. Again the same thing, personal service from individuals whom I dealt with by name, people who remembered my name, people who signed their names to the missives and thank-you notes. People who were polite and courteous. People who appeared to care for my business. For Abebooks read Etsy. For Etsy read Discogs. The list could go on and on. Places where I could deal with real people and have real conversations. Places that had the same characteristics as Abebooks.

Social is the plural of personal. It starts with caring. Something that has to be in the DNA of the firm.

That caring mentality leads to a relationship where people know each other, their names, what they do, what they like, what they don’t like.

That caring mentality leads to the willingness to invest in the relationship, to spend time, to build trust.

The digital infrastructure is only there to enable and enhance all this, by making it easier to connect with each other, to converse, to remember likes and dislikes. That digital infrastructure is there to help ensure that analog errors can be reduced: forgetfulness, name and address errors, mistakes made in hearing what was said. That digital infrastructure is there to reduce friction and to simplify discovery, inventory searching, price comparison, order entry, fulfilment and billing.

But it all begins and ends with the person, and being personal.

What does all this have to do with social? Well, when you try and scale up personal, think of what happens to the customer. More choices. More inventory. More selections. More advertising. More More More.

So customers need help. Help to find what they’re looking for. Advice on what is good and what is not. Signals on whom to trust and whom not to trust. How do customers do this? They turn to their friends.

Hello social.

Social. Not a layer. Not a feature. Not an app.

Social is the plural of personal.

[I intend to write at least two more posts, one on how scaling up personal to social helps build community and community action, and one on how this then enables the creation of real and sustainable social value. I may write a third, about choice, about anonymity, about B2B contexts, whatever.]

It all depends on what you say about this post. Whether you found it helpful or not. What you’d like to see in my next post. What you didn’t like. What I got wrong. What you think I should watch or listen to or read in order to learn more.





21 thoughts on “Social is the plural of personal: a continuation of yesterday’s post”

  1. Thanks, JP. A great post. Is there a limit by number to the number of relationships you can form – and does technology increase that number – and how close do they have to be?
    Cheers, and thanks, Jim

  2. Thanks for the post JP. I fear the advent of MOOC’s is a beginning of what you described when businesses began to ‘de-socialize’. In an attempt to scale education there seems to be less ‘relationship’. Hence my passionate reinforcement of the studentforce concept. It really would be a shame if universities became less social since if there were ever an intuitive definition of a ‘social enterprise’ it is a university campus.

    PS. studentforce is based upon a Don Tapscot quote (you mention him above). Please see the ABOUT section of



  3. James, of course there are limits, as set out in the Dunbar number. There is the possibility that modern communications and digital infrastructure may reduce friend-cultivating costs thereby increasing that number, but not everyone agrees with that statement. Many prefer to think that the Dunbar 150 is hard-wired and directly related to neurocranial capacity alone, and not influenced by the communications paradigm prevalent. I am not that sure.

  4. “Social” done well is a huge opportunity for organisations which have both consumers and Customers.

    b2c brands (lower case “c” = consumer) actually have very little direct contact with the end consumers of their products. Consumers are represented by research data. Consumers might be observed a few times a year from behind a two way screen in a focus group facility.

    Direct contact, personal attention, (in some cases) lavish entertainment, and long term relationship building is reserved for Customers. For Customers read retailers, the middlemen, that sell to consumers.

    So, in terms of human to human contact, most b2c brands are actually b2C brands (upper case “C” = Customer).

    The opportunity here is for these organisations to embrace social (the plural of personal) and make their end consumers (lower case “c”) feel like Customers (upper case “C”).

    c2C marketing. The act of making consumers feel like Customers.

  5. B2B will be interesting. As individuals gain confidence organizations: business, government will start to see their authority corrode and reemerge as social entities. There is a long way to go but would appreciate your current thinking on weak and strong ties. That concept is so hard for old school thinkers to engage with, especially the potentiality to covert weak ties into strong partners when the time is right and serendipity runs its course.

  6. Ed, many of the attempts to scale will try hard to dehumanise. because it is often a glaring opportunity to disempower the edge. it’s happened before, it will happen again. But it does not sustain.

  7. The efficiency of the classic “vertical” relationship, with the responsiveness of the “horizontal relationship”.

    The interesting thing is that the vertical relationship is reductive. I use Amazon like an online bookshop. I click and pay and we are done. Lots of merchant relationships, publishing relationships and delivery relationships are opened and shut.

    But with social, like any network, bigger is always better. First Amazon uses other social networks to help with recommendations etc. Then it realises that it’s best if it is the network. And it’s best if your friends are also on Amazon.

    The extension to this is to run entire communities.. why should people ever be not of Amazon? Amazon Kindergartens. Amazon towns, with Amazon homes. With Amazon glasses, you can see more Amazon metadata and unsee Google people. This way Amazon totally understands you.

    As you say, social is not an app.

    Godbye personal, hello social!

  8. Irony? Facebook put Social Networking at heart of its online product architecture. Almost every suite of ERP software still has the General Ledger at heart of its product architecture. And so Enterprise Software in general is not Social.

  9. @JP That was kind of my point. “Consumer” is a term associated with second class citizenship in the eyes of most organisations. Social technology embedded in genuinely social businesses can turn that around.

  10. A great follow up from the previous post JP.
    Can companies truly be human in their relationship with customers & other business partners if they are not human on the inside, in the way management treats employees or colleagues treat one another?
    I attended a recent keynote by Charles Leadbeater where he said that cities need to balance the systems that support it (rules, infrastructure, governance) and the empathy the city generates (ability to relate to others, to the community). So the best cities will be those where systems support relationships. Is this also true for organizations? Are social tools the systems/platforms that support/stimulate internal and external relationships? I believe so…

  11. You had me at Cluetrain, but even the core of that manifesto is largely findings its espoused truths today, which is well over a decade when these rebels vision was originally put forth.


  12. This reminds me of what I call the ‘myth of self-service’, where we confuse the benefit of having direct control over a process that impacts us versus being forced into a transaction designed to accommodate the organisational goal of scale and reduced cost – typically the outcome is dehumanised process. Social does have the potential redress that balance, so it is mutually beneficial.

  13. @james glad you see the possibility of social addressing this space. I’ve been thinking about this for a while and look forward to more comments and views

  14. Great post. Right in the nick of time.
    One suggestion though: Businesses should not create customers. I would hate to be ‘created’ as a customer. I prefer to think businesses should earn customers.
    Leaves me with a lot more opportunities and choices.
    Eagerly awaiting the next posts. Have a nice day,

  15. JP,

    An Insightful post!.

    Defining a social enterprise also means defining what success looks like and what growth means in that company.

    Obviously, AbeBooks can be an example of a social enterprise. But, Is it as successful as Amazon?. Does it need to be successful in the eyes of the market?. Because, market loves and promotes scale, growth and profitability over customers.

    Would love to hear your perspectives on this…Thanks.


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