Community Success Factors 3: a Social Object

Posted on: July 11, 2009

This is Item 3 of my 8 Critical Success Factors for Virtual Communities post.

A timeless notion?

I read Jyri Engeström’s post on having a social object many years ago and it has stayed with me. The more I think about the social web, when it works and when it doesn’t, the more this makes sense.

Social objects are described by Engeström as those that, “mediate the ties between people.” Similarly, Howard Rheingold has written,

“looking for a group’s collective goods is a way of looking for the elements that bind isolated individuals into a community.”

A social object can often be something to get angry about, such as the closure of a hospital or an international conflict. In his 2008 book Clay Shirky lists a number of ‘Meetups’ (where people meet online and then gather together) for all kinds of social objects including – ‘Witches’, ‘Tori Amos’, ‘Star Trek’ and ‘Vampires’. In MMORPG communities such as World of Warcraft the game effectively becomes the social object – members are drawn together through their fascination with the fictitious experience they share.

Communities of practice

A social object can be a professional area such as law, computing, marketing or medicine. Such ‘communities of practice’ flourish as their many-to-many nature democratizes access to cutting-edge knowledge, allows members to make contacts and enhance their standing among peers. Pressure to keep up-to-date in a field is a primary driver for this type of participation. Howard Rheingold quotes a participant who saying the,

“help I receive far outweighs the energy I expend helping others: a marriage of altruism and self-interest.”

Brands and social objects 

Without a geographical base, a virtual community must have a common interest or ‘social object.’ Even members of a local neighbourhood would find it difficult to communicate without some other element(s) to share ground.

Thus if your community is being created for the purpose of alerting people to your product or service – take a step back and be sure you can engage with people on their own terms. Think of people having a conversation at a cafe – what are the type of people you are trying to reach likely to be talking about. Make sure your cafe is where people can come and connect and be comfortable. And think before you sell – the best time to sell a car is never when people are deep in conversation.  Vauxhall’s VXR campaign on Facebook is a good example of how to engage people around a car rally via the social network, and thus creating brand recognition and kudos amongst a new generation:


Other successful social media campaigns that have hijacked related social objects are:


MTV: Yes to Safe Sex (sexy Spotify playlists)


Nike+ community notches up 2,000,000,000km+



1 Response to "Community Success Factors 3: a Social Object"

[…] have used the simple notion of the social object often, to frame, discuss and describe online communities and engagement […]

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