Drawing from contemporary social theorists Bruno Latour, Pierre Bourdieu, Michel de Certeau, Karin Knorr Cetina, Jyri Engeström, and Ulla-Maaria Engeström, we can look at how people connect through shared objects. The argument here is that the object is the thing that links people together.
For example, people come to Delicious to share bookmarks, people come to YouTube or Vimeo to share videos, and people come to Twitter to share links and status updates. As a result, social networks consist of people who are connected by these shared objects (in these cases: the bookmarks, the videos, and the updates). According toEngeström, “The social networking services that really work are the ones that are built around objects.”*
Yesterday, we put this to the test in my social media course. My class is currently reading Clara Shih’s The Facebook Era: Tapping Online Social Networks to Market, Sell, and Innovate. I adapted her “Reciprocity Ring” description into an activity on social objects (pages 58-61). Shih’s “Reciprocity Ring” builds from Mark Granovetter’s 1973 theory of “The Strength of Weak Ties“ among users of social networks. (However he’s not mentioned in her book). Granovotter’s research questioned the idea that the amount of overlap in two people’s social networks corresponds directly to the strength of their relationship. Instead he focused on the power of weak ties. According to Granovetter: “emphasis on weak ties lends itself to discussion of relations between groups and to analysis of segments of social structure not easily defined in terms of primary groups.”
In our class exercise, we were interested in how a social object, in this case a status “request,” brings people together.
- Each student wrote their name and a “status request” on a yellow Post-It Note. Some examples of student’s requests included an umbrella, a ride home, a babysitting job, a futon, an internship.
- Students placed their requests in a circle.
- Students surveyed the requests. When they could contribute to a request, they wrote their name and how they could help on a new Post-It Note. Students placed their contributions below the original requests.
- Students then connected (with string) each object to the person who offered a contribution.
This exercise makes visible how the social object, here the status request, mediates ties between people. People were not interacting directly with other people in this exercise. People were interacting with the social object, the status request. This exercise demonstrates that social objects are persuasive in nature and prompt participants to perform activities. These activities are relational in nature. The more interactive the social object, the more opportunities for connection.