On social objects

Working at Socialsquare, I’ve been introduced to some very practical thinkers in the realm of digital sociality. These are the people who are concerned with connecting the technical ‘how’ with the social ‘how’ to build new web services that help redefine digital sociality. One of the more thoughtful of these thinkers is Jyri Engeström.

Jyri is a Finnish entrepreneur with a Ph.D in sociology, and in his work, he combines his social science background with experience developing applications for web and mobile platforms. The most prominent result of this is Jaiku, a micro-blogging service very similar to Twitter. But with much more balanced design focused on conversation.

One of the main reasons why Jaiku comes across as a much more well-defined web service compared to Twitter is the way it was conceived. As Engeströmi explains in this interview with Brian Oberkirch, when Web 2.0 developers sought to define the functionality of their service, they thought of the social network they were building in the terms of traditional social network theory that claims that networks consist of nodes (people) connected by lines (relations).

Engeström found this theoretical framework to be lacking. Inspired by sociologists of science such as Karina Knorr Cetina and Bruno Latour, he argues that people are always connected by objects, and by focusing on the role of objects in social relationships, we can see how these objects often provide context in which these relationships come to make sense. This makes sense for us in our daily lives where we the contexts of situations to be self-evident. We’re very good at figuring out what the centre of attention is – depending on whether we’re attending a birthday party, a funeral, a baby shower, or a barn raising.

Engeström’s point is that these centres of attention are social objects that we use to connect with one another. Social objects offer us a vital context to make sense of how we ought to behave in a given situation. This is even more important in an online setting, where there is much less social context to draw upon. As human beings, we tend to adjust our behaviour according to the people around us, but if we can’t see how others act and interpret a given online social space, how can we make sense of it?

As Engeström argues, we can do this by defining a clear social object for a social web site. Consider the difference between how you’d present yourself and who you’d connect with through a web site offering to help you find jobs, and a web site offering to help you find dates. In both cases, the social object shapes how you will interact with it – and indeed, whether you will interact with it. Engeström argues that social services with an ill-defined social object tend to not do so well.

In this presentation, Engeström offers some tentative explanations of the power of social objects:

When you begin to examine social web services and look for social objects, they’re often easy to find: Delicious focuses on bookmarks. LinkedIn focuses on jobs. Dogster focuses on dogs. Upcoming focuses on events. Flickr focuses on photos. Youtube focuses on videos. Amazon focuses on books. eBay focuses on auctions. Craigslists focuses on classifieds. Myspace tends to focus on music. And so on. The real magic of Facebook, according to Engeström, is that they’ve opened it up to allow users and developers to create their own social objects, providing for unlimited number of objects – events, photos, status messages, what have you.

So how did Engeström use this notion of social objects in building his own social web service, Jaiku? Well, the social object of Jaiku is status messages – or jaikus as they’re called (a neologism similar to tweets, I suppose). Engeström was inspired by Instant Messaging status messages, which people already used to a great extent to tell their network what they were up to (whether on Microsoft Messenger, AIM, Gtalk or elsewhere). But these IM statuses weren’t sharable (outside that specific Instant Messaging network) or savable (no web history). He wanted to turn these status messages into a fully fledged social object, which users could share, discuss, and socialise through. Having worked for Nokia, he also sought to combine the service with SMS updates.

In short, Jaiku was conceived from the beginning with a specific centre of attention, which all use of the service would revolve around. Twitter didn’t come with all these features for socialising, and users had to invent them for themselves. In that way, it’s somewhat unfortunate that Twitter took off, and Jaiku did not. When asked about what the next big thing in the field of online social objects might be, he suggests locations, which Jaiku also experimented with. But being able to digitally bookmark a location as a social object depends on a much more widespread adoption of GPS-enabled phones. Just like Flickr depended on widespread adoption of digital cameras, and Youtube depended on widespread adoption of webcams and digital camcorders.

Summing up his experiences with building Jaiku, Engeström names 5 key design principles in using social objects as a design parameter:

1) Define your object. (users should be able to identify a site’s social object within 10 seconds of entering the site)
2) Define your verbs. (what actions can users actually perform on the site in relation to the social object? – a brilliant example is eBay’s Buy and Sell buttons)
3) Make it sharable. Make it easy and quick to share. What is the particular way to share this kind of object?
4) Make it viral. You need to turn each invitation into a gift. Make receivers feel like that they are getting a gift. Youtube does this well. Sending a video is often just like sending a smile.
5) Don’t charge the spectators, charge the publishers. Make it free and easy to see, use and share the social object. Those who have a keen interest in using the social object for more specialised purposes will also be willing to pay for that privilege.

It’s striking how well these design principles fit with what successful free software projects are doing. The Ubuntu community is an excellent example of how a whole community of hackers are brought to gather by a social object, an operating system, which they have a common interest in. I really like the idea of social objects as points of focus and gravity for social interactions. I’ll have to spend some more time thinking about how such objects may create social coherence by providing a context that allows people with shared interests to relate one another in new and meaningful ways.

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I had already come across the presentation on my own, yet I must agree it is very VERY good.

I even used it with some friends of mine to help them “get it”.

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