Social objects matter in PR — and here’s why.
During the decade of the Hippie Web (2005-2015), discussing social objects was all the rage. Discussing social objects as a social object must’ve been the pinnacle of meta at a time when the favourite topic to discuss in social media seemed to be social media itself.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s dive deeper into the origins of social objects as a concept — and investigate how they can be used to improve your PR activities.
The Basics of Social Objects
What is a social object?
A social object is that which people discuss specifically when talking to each other. A social object could be a person, it could be an event, it could be a concept. It could be the latest Star Wars movie or what you had for dinner last night. It could be anything, but that specific anything — that’s the social object.
Why was social objects of such interests for social media enthusiasts during the Hippie Web years?
In 2005, the Finnish entrepreneur Juri Engström discussed social objects to argue that social networks was formed around social objects — and not the other way around. Engström was the founder of the social network Jaiku, a much-loved meeting place for social media early adopters, and this qualified him as a thought leader at the time.
There was generally a huge interest around social media networks as a phenomenon. Social object theory served as a useful framework to explain why some networks seemed to thrive and others didn’t.
Social networks has evolved greatly since and we know more about the dopamine-inducing gamification, the mathematics of viral loops, and the inner workings of the algorithms that makes certain social networks superior to others. All of this seems to have pushed the discussion of social objects back into the shadows.
What is social object theory?
Thinking of concepts as objects is deeply rooted in sociology in general and phenomenology in particular. Sociologist Emile Durkheim proposed that, “The first and most basic rule is to consider social facts as things.”1 This approach is dominant in the Actor-Network Theory (ANT) which is focused not on why a network takes a certain shape, but is rather a method or approach to understanding the relationships within a network.
In this type of analysis, one could say that objects become objects of meaning only when transmitted throughout the network. They gain or loose meaning as they pass through the network — and they also change the network as they do. “Fake news” suddenly becomes more than just two ordinary words, it becomes a social object with its own meaning and connotations which evolves and thus becomes only that which it is at any given moment in time.
Why is social objects interesting in PR?
Both the academic approach, as well as Engström’s translation of the concept into the social media environment, applies a rather classical macro approach to the analysis of social objects.
While this is interesting for analysing human behaviour and network effects in general, these theories become rather descriptive in nature. In a professional setting, like PR, we need more prescriptive approaches. In other words: We need to know if we can use the social object analysis to gain greater traction for our PR strategies.
This type of PR analysis holds great promise. The Actor-Network Theory basically states that only that which is being passed through a network actually exists — at least in any meaningful way. And that premise ought to strike a chord with most PR professionals, surely.
If we, as PR professionals, can decode what constitutes a social object, then maybe we can construct social objects more methodically?
The Anatomy of Social Objects
What makes an object social?
Not everyone focused on the macro-approach of social objects.
In 2007, the popular cartoonist Hugh MacLeod (gapingvoid.com) started discussing social objects from a more practical perspective. It made sense, since MacLeod’s cartoons where not only funny, but also acted as free-to-share social commentary of the times. His cartoons where clearly distinct social objects in themselves.
MacLeod went on to outline nine principles of social objects:
1. Make meaning: The market for people wanting something to believe in is infinite; make your products “worth it.”
2. Create/find a purpose: People often confuse purpose with meaning, but the purpose relates back to the reason you get up in the morning and do what you do.
3. Create play: Humans innately like to play; it’s the way we first start negotiating the world, so give people a reason to want to interact with your product.
4. Create new language: If you want to evolve your product, you have to evolve marketing. You have to talk to people in a way they have never been talked to before.
5. Create share-ability: Don’t make it easy for people to share your product; Make it easy for them to share THEMSELVES.
6. Push boundaries of design: Design matters! It has the ability to differentiate your product.
7. Facilitate community: Turn your product into a place where people gather rather than thing people that people buy.
8. Create new context: Allow people to see your brand in a new light.
9. Enable “Meatspace”: Bring people together to facilitate discussions around your product.
It should be noted that the above list is a summary of points MacLeod made at a seminar in 2013 and that he himself saw these above principles as a work in progress. And I would agree: While these principles are interesting to note for PR professionals, they’re somewhat to general to be practically useful.
Is social objects something that can be created?
Anyone with any sort of marketing background will quickly note that the thinking around social objects relates closely to that of word-of-mouth marketing. Emanuel Rosen, who published The Anatomy of Buzz back in 2000, points out the importance of seeding.
Seeding is making your product or service available beforehand to a select few who are influencers — and not just review journalists. Today, seeding is of course standard PR practice for accelerating buzz for products and services.
In 2013, Jonah Berger published Contagious: Why Things Catch On in which he discusses concepts such as social currency, effective triggers, emotional responses, and public visibility.
Both Rosen and Berger tangents the influential work of Robert Cialdini, who in 1984 published Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion. His famous principles of persuasion are reciprocity, scarcity, authority, commitment and consistency, liking and consensus.
However, these approaches tend to focus on creating the right context for objects to become social, which is of course crucial, but they aren’t exactly detailing what makes an object social.
Using Social Objects in PR
How do you create social objects in PR today?
I suggest seven different types of social objects. To get people talking with each other about your brand, the practical approach is to make sure that your PR campaign qualifies as one of these seven types.
Curiosity Objects. Is your PR object a curiosity worthy of getting people to talk about it with each other?
Fear Objects. Is your PR object reflecting a fear or anxiety notable enough to get people talking about it with each other?
Gap Objects. Is your PR object filling some form of gap that will make it easier for people to talk about the object with each other?
Mystery Objects. Is your PR object stimulating conversation between people due to its intriguing nature?
Inspirational Objects. Is your PR object enough of a general interest milestone or inspiration to get people talking to each other about it?
Envy Objects. Is your PR object reflecting something that will make people talk to each other about ambitions and aspirations?
Conflict Objects. Is your PR object part of a relevant conflict that engages people enough to discuss it with each other?
Ego Objects. Is your PR object usable as a token of self-identification to be used when talking to other persons?
Anger Objects. Is your PR object provocative enough to evoke an emotional response worthy of discussing with other people?
What is an example of a social object?
Today, Elon Musk has made himself part of many conversations. While Musk is almost impossible to compete with for a regular business, he sure seems to have a knack for getting people to talk with each other about his endeavours.
“Have you heard that Elon Musk has sent a Tesla into space?” (Curiosity Object)
“Have you heard that Elon Musk isn’t expecting everyone on the first Mars expedition to survive?” (Fear Object)
“Have you heard that Elon Musk is sleeping in a small shed?” (Mystery Object)
“Have you heard that Elon Musk is working has built a whole city based on renewable energy?” (Inspirational Object)
“Have you heard that Elon Musk is taking on the whole car industry?” (Conflict Object)
“Have you heard that Elon Musk is practicing first principle thinking?” (Ego Objects)
“Have you heard that Elon Musk smoked weed on the Joe Rogan podcast?” (Anger Object)