There’s been a fun discussion on Gaping Void the last couple of days in response to Hugh’s post Social objects for beginners. In particular, Rachel Bellow weighed in with:
‘Social objects are the particular manifestation of shared meaning, right? So that suggests there’s a drive underlying all these manifestations… that the social object is not, in itself, the drive. The need for meaning… specifically shared meaning… is a deep human impulse that will, invariably, manifest in some form or another. If not this social object, another. Social networks like Facebook are simply evidence of that quest. Aren’t they simply forums where the quest for shared meaning can coalesce and result in manifestation (social objects)?’
I take her point to be this: What we observe might be the social object itself: the iPhone, the new baby, Christmas etc; but is the deeper underlying question about shared meaning which matters.
This is clearly not a small question, sounding more like the challenges faced in epistemology by many of the greatest philosophers for centuries. In particular, Wittgenstein (to radically oversimplify) understood all truths to be social, and the process of being judged to be correct little more than proving you could adhere to the common ‘language games’.
Just a small observation on that point. Before we had Facebook, the internet and so on, shared meaning was restricted to geographical or language groupings.
What is the most successful shared meaning ever? Surely it is the church, who managed to create a common language shared by millions across social and geographical borders.
However, as discussed here, we are not saying that the control of social meaning has been democratised by digital media. Instead, it has clearly been decentralised. Disparate groups across any divide (except the digital divide) can now free-form groups of shared meaning. The other massive shift is that being a member of one meaning-group (perhaps we should call them ‘karass‘ in honour of KV), is no longer exclusive. I can simultaneously be in multiple groups and I can bridge those groups for other members.
People have talked as Google as a ‘reputation management system‘. that’s always seemed a little narrow to me. How about Google (et al) as a ‘map of social meaning’, and imagine the power it will have when the engines understand the groupings of the communities of meaning.
This all seems very abstract. But of course, there is also a question here about exactly the how the role of social objects works in deciding how people buy things. It is this practical question which Hugh is discussing in today’s post: Why Social Objects are the Future of marketing.
Hugh asks ‘if your product is not a Social Object, why are you in business?’. I think we should revise that to ‘If your brand is not a Social Object, why are you in business?’. Brands are all about shared meaning of course, and branding is an attempt to influence and control that meaning.
I also think we need to look at two hierachies in which brands can exist as social objects. The first is the role they play in people’s lives in the continuum between need and want: between physical survival, functional value, enjoyability, emotional connection, social expression, and growth and learning. Notice the different relations we have to the heating in our houses, and our sports utility vehicles; between the newly born child and the newly purchased house. Luckily for us, as Hugh points out:
‘The bad news is, most products are boring. The good news is, most word-of-mouth is boring’.
The second hierarchy is a fascinating one as I presume it will be the key decider as to how social objects will spread, and therefore can help in marketing products. The second hierarchy is the observation that wherever a social object exists (within a context of shared meaning), it is not necessarily shared between two parties on an equal footing. Within the community of shared interest we have leaders and followers. These roles can change, but the landscape is not flat. And, similarly, the motivations around the objects themselves is not flat. Different members of the community will be trying to achieve radically different things.