I can’t remember when I first came across Jyri Zengestrom’s excellent posting on object-centered sociality, but in a nutshell, object-centered sociality is the idea that social networks are not just about connections between people, they are about connections between people around a shared object.
The classic example – and the inspiration for Jyri’s post – is that LinkedIn is not about acquiring a huge list of contacts: For most participants, it is about jobs, whether job means employment now or in the future, or whether it means acquiring new customers.
I wholeheartedly agree with the idea that social networks must have an object to succeed. In most cases, if you don’t see the object, and feel the network exists only for the sake of the connections, you are probably not looking hard enough. Moreover most participants within a particular network interact with the object in similar ways. In other words, there are common actions – verbs – that apply to the object. As Nina Simon has suggested when writing about participatory museums, there must be a verb that transmits and one that receives in the context of successful museum exhibits. I think this principle applies to pretty much all social networks.
My bias is that in many, if not most, successful social networks, the key verbs are “to teach” and “to learn.” I’ve suggested as much in Learning as a Key to Social Media Success. (It is worth emphasizing here, as I tried to in comments on that post, that I do not intend these verbs in the traditional, calcified sense of classroom-based teaching and learning. Both teaching and learning are much broader, more fundamental activities than this very limited usage of them suggests.)
Another point I would add is that the object of the network must actually be of value to the desired participants. More accurately, interaction with other participants in the network in relation to the object must produce value for each participant. This may seem like a glaringly obvious point, but speaking from the viewpoint of an entrepreneur and and someone who often consults on marketing, I can attest that it is a point that is often missed. It is the classic stuff of “value proposition” and again and again, organizations are unable to define their value proposition clearly. This holds as true in attempts to develop successful social networks as it does in other parts of their business.
The bottom line? If you plan to develop a social media/social learning initiative for your members or customers, make sure you know the social object, (really, the social learning object) and make sure that participants in the network value interaction with each other in relation to the social object.
Is there an exception to all of this?
Yes, and I think it is a very important one.
In a highly connected world, learning and knowledge are often emergent rather than established. In other words, it may be impossible to know what the object of a network is until it emerges. LinkedIn itself, as Jyri describes it, is an example of this. The founders thought the network was about one thing – i.e., creating as many contacts as possible – when really it was about another – i.e., jobs. Arguably, this shift in object was not necessarily emergent. The founders could have foreseen it, but as is so often the case with new business ventures, they didn’t.
The other bottom line? If you are seeking to innovate, to discover what the real object is, you have to be prepared to let it emerge and live with the lack of control that this process implies. It may be of value to establish a network simply for the sake of a network. Even in this scenario, however, there must ultimately be an object.