Writing. Design. Social Change.

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.

  1. 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.
  2. Students placed their requests in a circle.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.

4 Responses to “Social objects: a string theory”

  1. Jouko Salonen

    Thank you. Interesting experiment. When looking those pictures I can see strings crossing the empty space within the circle. However I understood that the students placed their contribution-post-it-note below the “social object” – so what type of connections are those?

  2. Aimée Knight

    Thank you for reading and for your comment. I apologize for the confusion. Yes, you are correct: students placed their contributions below the “social object.”

    The strings, in this case, do not connect the object/status request to its contributions. Instead, the strings show points of connection between the object and the people who offered a contribution. Strings are going from the inner ring where students first posted their name and their request to the various places they offered a contribution. I hope my attempt to explain clarifies rather than confuses!

  3. Clara Shih

    So glad to hear my book was useful for your class, Aimée! Good catch about Mark G – the funny thing is he was mentioned in the first edition but somehow got cut from this newest edition of the book. I will make sure he gets added back in for future editions! 🙂

  4. Aimée Knight

    Thank you! I am really enjoying teaching your book. It is smart. And useful. This month my students are working in various organizations and companies around Philadelphia to help develop their social media strategies. There are so many practical takeaways from “The Facebook Era.” Thanks again.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

Basic HTML is allowed. Your email address will not be published.

Subscribe to this comment feed via RSS

%d bloggers like this: