Social objects – meaningful or meaningless


(Image ‘Socializing’ Noamgalai

This is a follow up to my earlier post on Social Objects in Education, and is an attempt to wrap up some of the discussion around it and the thoughts these have prompted.

In my Twitter stream John Connell said he wondered if there was something of a tautology around social objects. I think I know what he means, and it relates to a point I’ll come to later on definitions. Put simply the argument goes something like ‘what’s a social object?’ Answer: ‘It’s an object that’s social.’ Something is a social object if it acts as a social object – the danger with this kind of circular definition is that it doesn’t really get you very far. (I have similar reservations about deep and surface learning by the way). For now, let’s park this objection (hope that’s okay John) and hope it will work itself out if we continue to explore the concept.

Josie Fraser commented that

"Profiles ARE social objects. They’re not a real person – they’re a
constructed representation around which interaction takes place – a
specific kind of social object. They are artifacts which connect and
make visible networks."

This extends the definition of a social object beyond the ‘mere’ content I was considering. Your user profile in Facebook, say, is itself a social object since you choose what information to display. I think this is true, if one considers FB, by choosing what applications to install on your profile you are creating a social object. In essence, you are throwing out a number of social hooks to the community to see which ones catch. For instance, if I install the LastFM application then presumably it’s because I think the information about the last music I listened to is of some social value to my FB friends, however small that value is (I know most people’s waking thought isn’t ‘what’s Martin been listening to?’),

My colleague Andy Lane  argues that  content can be seen as a mediating artefact, which  reminds me of the work of Grainne who argued that

artefacts help practitioners and students to make informed decisions and
choices in order to undertake specific teaching and learning activities. By
using this concept of MAs and grounding this in relevant socio-cultural
literature it is possible to begin to identify which MAs are appropriate for
particular users in particular circumstances.
(Conole, G. (2005), ‘Mediating artefacts to guide choice in
            creating and undertaking learning activities’, presentation
            at CALRG seminar, Open University, 1st November 2005)

She argues that models, narratives, learning designs can form this function. Does this mean we should bundle them in under the social object umbrella too?

Stephen Downes says he doesn’t agree that the network is built around the object (Hugh MacLeod’s conjecture), instead arguing that

these so-called "social objects" – images, videos, and the like – constitute a vocabulary that is used by members of a network.

Let’s say the social objects in this case are some academic pieces of content for now, e.g. some AV, articles, books, etc on a particular subject. In the sense that the objects inform the dialogue between the participants, and they talk about the objects, then yes, they do constitute a form of vocabulary. For example, learner1 might say ‘but we saw in the Wisdom of the Crowds that the mass can make immediate judgements that are better than any single member of the group.’ Here ‘the Wisdom of the Crowds’ is part of a shared vocabulary, the book is the social object, and that is used by the members of the network as Stephen suggests.

However, also imagine this scenario – learners with an interest in, say Ancient Greece in a social network share content resources (through something like the visual bookshelf) and then decide to come together for a discussion on, say, the role of Themistocles in ancient Greece, around a wiki article on him. In this sense,  it is more than a shared vocabulary they are using (although they need that too), but the social object (the resources and the wiki article) are the social objects which are igniting and focusing their discussion.

Lastly, David Wiley links us back to the work on learning objects, and in particular the metaphor he proposed then of the campfire – ie the social glue that brings people out of their tents:

Without a campfire all you have is a bunch of tents setup and people
wandering around disconnectedly. The campfire provides a place for
people to congregate and interact. The campfire appears before the
singing starts.

That last point is significant – the campfire appears before the singing starts, not the other way round. In the comments I replied to David saying that the link to learning objects occurred to me also for two reasons:

i) Are social objects just learning objects that you deliberately create with social interaction in mind (lots of work on LOs seemed to be about interaction
with the LO itself, ie they were conceived as multi-media objects)

ii) like with LOs the debate around social objects quickly becomes
bogged down in one of definition. Almost every discussion I had about
LOs started and ended with ‘but what is a learning object?’

I’m not entirely sure where this leaves us regarding social objects. Part of these blog posts is to help me think it through in a social manner, as all the above comments demonstrate. Rather like terms that become popular in academic circles the debate is often about whether they really add anything. Affordances was another such term, which once it moved beyond the strict Gibsonian interpretation became too loose for many people to be comfortable with. I take a fairly pragmatic stance on the use of such terms – don’t get bogged down in an exact definition, if you have an intuitive take on what they mean and it helps stimulate thought, debate, development or research then that’s good enough. And that’s where I am with social objects at the moment.


  1. Alex says:

    Good post! Jyri Engestrom’s post on what makes for a “good” social object may be of interest:
    I don’t get bogged down in the apparent circularity of the term. Any object, physical or not, may acquire significance for any two people, a group of people, a nation or the world. For example, the watch in Pulp fiction; the campfire in your example; Watergate; and global warming, respectively. From my perspective, the challenge is to design web services that encourage interaction between people around the service’s defined social objects, whatever they may be. And as Jyri points out, some things (or ideas or experiences or events) have greater potential than others.
    Just my $.02, of course 😉

  2. Andy Lane says:

    Good summary Martin. As it happens I am just reviewing a book on online education using learning objects edited by rory mcgreal which covers all these definitional issues. Personally I prefer getting away from the term to talk about the function (Stephen Downes says much the same in the book), a trait I take from my systems thinking background. Basically naming a system e.g education system is very unhelpful as it is so vague and depends on context. Thus all systems teaching focuses on identfying clearly your system of interest by using verbs not nouns e.g. an education system may be a system for teaching people how to obtain qualifications, a system for employing teachers, a system for keeping kids off the streets and so on (rather simplistic description but they show how different and specific they can and need to be). A noun is only useful for things that are relatively uncontentious. The important aspect of learning objects or social objects for me is what function do they play in the system of interest I have identified. Otherwise a learning object is no different to a cell phone: yes I might know one when I see one and they have come in all different shapes and sizes but its value is in how people use it to do things.
    Moving on to objects as mediating artefacts then again use will vary enormously as the object may have more or less significance in the social interactions that comprise the educational discourse (I am making the assumption that we are talking of situations where teaching/learning are a major intent). So I agree very much with Grainne’s points and that we have to look at all these things in their context because of their sociality and recognise that terms can be a poor shorthand and each meaning may need to be stated more clearly.

  3. Martin says:

    Thanks Alex – I agree with you, anything can be a social object, but some things more so than others. Some things are more ‘social objecty’ than others – so if you take this perspective in education, you want to create objects that have potential as social objects. The other element in the equation then is context – some contexts promote social interaction around objects more than others.
    Andy – I think the verb not noun heuristic from systems thinking is nicely applicable here. I’m going to have more of a think around this.
    PS – does this post count as a social object now we’ve had a discussion?

  4. AJ Cann says:

    Where are the boundaries – is the blog the social object here rather than this one post?

  5. Martin says:

    AJ – I don’t know! Stop asking awkward questions. Actually I guess both are, depending on context (that old get out of jail card). For example, OU readers of say Tony Hirst’s blog may form a loose community where his posts form part of Stephen Downes’ shared vocabulary. On the other hand a particular posting might be just one element in a set of resources, so people discussing DRM, content etc might have my future of content post amongst a whole array of resources, e.g. Weinberger’s book, Clay Shirky’s posts, etc. In this respect only the post is the object.
    Make any sense whatsoever? I’m making it up as I go along you know…

  6. AJ Cann says:

    Yes, makes sense. When I wrote my former comment, I was thinking that the mobile phone is the social object but the phone network is not, but I concede now that that is wrong.
    Once again Martin, you have shown me the error of my ways! 😉

  7. Andy Lane says:

    It may help to take another idea much used in systems and participatory environmental resource management activities which is the idea of the agora or forum. In other words you can have the ‘place’ where the social interaction is mediated through but where certain artefacts help mediate the discourse. David Wiley’s campfire is more analagous to the place for orchestarting the discourse but the fire will not usually be the mediating object for the content of the discourse.

  8. Good stuff Martin. Some of the discussion definitely links back to the Learning Object world and that made me think of what happened then. I was quite enthusiastic about LOs when I thought they could have an object focus in the same sense as Object-oriented. E.g. that there could be some way to draw on such concepts as methods, inheritance and so lead to the advantages that are recognised in the software world. Actually though LOs got caught up in how to describe them (metadata) and weak definitions of the sort “if it is used for learning it is a LO”. So reading the Social Object discussion above I find echoes of this and wonder if it should be related to where I (and others) went with LOs which was to switch to Learning Design as the concept that was worth investing a bit of time in. With LD the change was to think about how intent was being communicated – not necessarily wholly a good move as LD has been criticised as Teaching Design and often forgetting the learner.
    For this case though I think it makes me consider two things. One is that perhaps rather than abandoning the “object” word in switching from LO to LD we could drop the “L” and end up with Social Objects. The second though is that rather than Social Objects are we really talking about Social Designs? This has the advantage that we can then catalogue the designs. Perhaps we can start with your blog and then revisit your selfies as:
    1. The shared blog entry
    2. Blog entry with lists
    3. The great title blog entry
    4. And now the sequential blog entry with social commentary!
    These can all be considered as social triggers (whether or not there is direct feedback) and perhaps be part of a wider category of Social Designs (or even Social Patterns). Think there could be some mileage here.

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