Social Objects, Social Markers, and Online Community

by Paul on July 10, 2009

hughtrain8166A few years ago, Hugh Macleod, of Gaping Void and author of Ignore Everybody,  introduced me two concepts: social objects and social markers.  Hugh got the term ‘Social Object’ from anthropologist Jyri Engestrom, but has added a lot of his own insight to the term over the years.  If you want to understand community, you need to be familiar with these terms.  If you are involved in online community – engaging it or building it – you must know them.

Social Objects

Communities gather around social objects.  Social objects can be things (like the iPhone), affinities (like knitting), and ideas (like social justice).   Hugh says social objects are “…the reason two people are talking to each other, as apposed to talking to someone else.”  Conversation – in one form or another – is an irreducible minimum of community.  Social objects catalyze conversation and create an environment that fuels community.

If you want to start online community, you need a social object.  Or, you need to create an environment that takes advantage of an existing social object. Apple created the iPhone, which became a social object.  Amazon created the Kindle.   Ravelry, on the other hand, is a place for knitters and crocheters to to discuss their social objects – knitting and crocheting.  Ravelry’s success is partially because it created a place for people to discuss their social objects. One way or another, social objects are important if you want to start online community.

If you want to find and join online communities, you look for their social objects.  Use searches to find these social objects within Twitter, Plurk, or blog networks.  Look for groups in Facebook and Bebo built around social objects.  Search for social objects and you will find communities. In my opinion, finding existing communities is a lot easier than planting (or developing) social objects and trying to get people to talk about them.

Social objects are crucial in the emerging phase of community.  But, as communities grow, they rely less on the object that brought them together.  Sure that social object is part of who they are, but it no longer dominates the conversation.  Social objects become social markers as communities develop.

Social Markers

Communities have insiders and outsiders.  They use social markers as an easy way to see who is part of their community – or should be part of their community – and who is not.

Ever been to a conference and had someone ask, “Have you read..?” or “Do you know..?” or “Do you use..?”  Two things happen when people ask this question: 1) they check to see if you share some of the same social markers – books you’ve read, people you know, or tools you use – with them and 2) they check to see if they share social markers with you.  They want to know – simultaneously – if you can be part of their community and if they can be part of yours.

Social markers define the boundaries of community.  Social markers help communities, especially larger ones, recognize their own.  As Hugh says, “Social Markers are a prime form of social shorthand, that people use to STAKE OUT the ecosystem they’re occupying.”

The more social markers a community shares, the stronger the community.  Additionally, the more social markers you share with an existing community, the faster you, as an outsider, will accepted as a member of that community.  Consequently, social markers are a very important part of engaging online communities.  They can help you, and they can hurt you.

I know that I share social markers with many communities.  I can directly engage those communities because we share those markers.  There are other communities, however, that I don’t have any of their social markers.  At that point I have to make a decision.  Do I make their social markers my own, or do I mobilize someone into that community who already shares several of their social markers?  The latter is easier and takes less time.  The former is difficult, and may be impossible.  Either way, you have to know a community’s social markers to make that decision.

Social markers take many forms.  They can be books, acquaintances, shared experiences, blogs, specific social media, language, movies, and so on.  You have to listen closely to the conversation to identify them.  If every member of a community has read a specific set of books and subscribes to the RSS of specific blogs, you can bet they are social markers.

Social Crisis

If someone thinks they should be part of your community but finds out you don’t share the same social markers, they are immediately thrown into a social crisis.  They will have to re-evaluate their social marker or re-evaluate what they believe about you.  If they really want to be a part of your community, they have to change their social makers.  If they don’t want to change, they might decide that you are not really as important to them as they thought and either ignore you or ridicule you.

I’m not sure of a good way to handle social crisis other than knowing that it happens and how people respond.

What Does This Mean?

1.  You need to become very good at identifying social objects and social markers – online and offline.

2.  If you want to build community, you need to start with a social object.  Create a social object or give people the tools they need to congregate around an existing one.

3.  If you start a community with, or around, a social object, realize that social objects naturally become social markers.  Plan for this transition and strengthen the community through discovering and developing additional social markers.

4.  Start conversations to identify other people’s social objects and social markers.  Once you identify them, talk about them.  Keep the conversation on their turf.  You will make them more comfortable and more likely to forgive any lack of similar social objects on your part.

Well, that is another long post from me.  I’d love to hear your thoughts and ideas.  Have you observed any of these principles in action as you engage online communities?

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{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Stephen Young II July 12, 2009 at 9:48 am

Okay, I like this concept, and it is a new way of explaining it to me. Still a little academic, but I understood you well. Let me see if this is something I can break down to an example or two in my life.

Social Object: Saints Football
Community: discussion board
Social Markers: hmm, that’s a little harder. Definitely not political views, religion, race, sexuality, or music style. Possibly familiarity or identification with New Orleans food and culture.

Stephen Young II July 12, 2009 at 9:52 am

Oops, hit enter before I was done. Oh well. That was an online example, and I am not sure what else to do with that. Help me if I am messing up this concept.

Rick Hein August 18, 2009 at 3:43 pm

Great post! You have identified some key elements when it comes to understanding and building community. Thanks

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