Mediating Objects of Socialability

The Map is not the territory.”Alfred Korzybski

These qualities of vision are characteristic of people who love maps, for maps show an overview and details all at once.”David Weinberger

Andrew McAfee wrote a great article on Enterprise 2.0 about innovative and foundational Information Technology (IT) that is social network and Web 2.0 based.  Dion Hinchcliffe extended some of these artifacts.  Together these articles provide a map to a vision of the future of work.

The other major change to the core objects and schemas in an Enterprise 2.0 world is that most every content object that is presented to the member must be capable of handling Web 2.0 like user generated content as described by Andrew McAfee in his Enterprise 2.0 article and book and by Dion Hinchcliffe in his extensions to McAfee’s SLATES.  The day of hierarchically generated content where information flows in an orderly fashion up and down the hierarchy for approval and controlled distribution is over with Enterprise 2.0 technology and culture.

The current list of Enterprise 2.0 capabilities that need to be added to each object are depicted below:

Yet, as these capabilities get deployed, the “social me” I present has to also change depending on the context of who is viewing the content.  As part of her Masters Thesis on photography collections at The MIT Media Lab, Fernanda Viegas (previously at IBM’s Many Eyes research project) quoted Joshua Meyrowitz:

“When I was a college student in the late 1960s, I spent one three-month summer vacation in Europe. I had a wide range of new and exciting experiences, and when I returned home I began to share these with my family, friends, and other people I knew. But I did not give everyone I spoke to exactly the same account of my trip. My parents, for example, heard about the safe and clean hotels in which I stayed and about how the trip had made me less of a picky eater. In contrast, my friends heard an account filled with danger, adventure, and a little romance. My professors heard about the “educational” aspects of my trip: visits to museums, cathedrals, historical sites, and observations of cross-cultural differences in behavior. Each of my many “audiences” heard a different story.

“The stories of my trip varied not only in content, but also in style. There were varying numbers of slang words, different grammatical constructions, and different pronunciations. The pace of my delivery, body posture, facial expressions, and hand gestures were different in each situation. Each description had its own unique mixture of earnestness and flippancy. My friends, for example, heard a speech filled with “sloppy speech” and sarcasm. 

“Did I “lie” to any of these people? Not really. But I told them different truths. I did what most of us do in everyday interactions: I highlighted certain aspects of my personality and experience and concealed others.”  Joshua Meyrowitz

Joshua goes on to describe how these stories all were mediated by the artful selection of which photos he shared with each audience.

Jyri Engestrom in his blog describes the importance of adding objects as mediators of social networking:

“A while ago I wondered how our relationship to social networking services will change when instead of adding new contacts, we begin to feel like we’d be better off cutting the links to the people who we actually don’t know, stopped liking, or no longer want to be associated with for whatever other reason. I was reminded of this on reading that Russel Beattie has now decided to link out of LinkedIn. He explains:

“Yes, I thought about just deleting the people I didn’t know, but each deletion of a contact requires an individual request to customer service (it’s not just a check box and submit operation) so I finally just decided to cancel the whole thing. I think in general, people who would want to use this service are pretty contactable without using this system, no? … And if you’re a hard to reach person, you’re most likely not using this sort of thing anyways. Anyone can contact anyone in five hops, so what real use is it?”

“I want to use Russell’s question about the ‘real use’ of LinkedIn as a window into what I think is a profound confusion about the nature of sociality, which was partly brought about by recent use of the term ‘social network’ by Albert Laszlo-Barabasi and Mark Buchanan in the popular science world, and Clay Shirky and others in the social software world. These authors build on the definition of the social network as ‘a map of the relationships between individuals.’ Basically I’m defending an alternative approach to social networks here, which I call ‘object centered sociality’ following the sociologist Karin Knorr Cetina. I’ll try to articulate the conceptual difference between the two approaches and briefly demonstrate that object-centered sociality helps us to understand better why some social networking services succeed while others don’t.

“Russell’s disappointment in LinkedIn implies that the term ‘social networking’ makes little sense if we leave out the objects that mediate the ties between people. Think about the object as the reason why people affiliate with each specific other and not just anyone. For instance, if the object is a job, it will connect me to one set of people whereas a date will link me to a radically different group. This is common sense but unfortunately it’s not included in the image of the network diagram that most people imagine when they hear the term ‘social network.’ The fallacy is to think that social networks are just made up of people. They’re not; social networks consist of people who are connected by a shared object. That’s why many sociologists, especially activity theorists, actor-network theorists and post-ANT people prefer to talk about ‘socio-material networks’, or just ‘activities’ or ‘practices’ (as I do) instead of social networks.

“Sometimes the ‘social just means people’ fallacy gets built into technology, like in the case of FOAF, which is unworkable because it provides a format for representing people and links, but no way to represent the objects that connect people together. The social networking services that really work are the ones that are built around objects. And, in my experience, their developers intuitively ‘get’ the object-centered sociality way of thinking about social life. Flickr, for example, has turned photos into objects of sociality. On the objects are the URLs. EVDB,, and evnt focus on events as objects. LinkedIn, however, is becoming the victim of its own cunning: it started off thinking it could benefit by playing up the ‘social just means people’ misunderstanding. As Russell put it,

That was the “game” right? He who has the most contacts wins. At first you were even listed by the number of contacts you had, remember?

“Reid Hoffman’s choice (however unintentional it might have been, I don’t know) to encourage the use of LinkedIn as a game is what activity theorist Frank Blackler would call the introduction of a ‘surrogate object.’ The surrogate object is actually not sustained by the economic, technical, and cultural arrangement that the activity relies on to sustain itself. Playing ‘Who has the most connections wins’ might have been fun to some people for a while, but it was not very valuable to the users and developers as a collective in the long run. Now LinkedIn is trying to change the object of sociality that it offers, and persuade people to re-orient their networks around their actual jobs. (Don’t get me wrong—I’m the first to support Reid and his team on their endeavour to make LinkedIn more useful as a medium for job-centered sociality!)

“Last but not least, we can use the object-centered sociality theory to identify new objects that are potentially suitable for social networking services. Take the notion of place, for example. Annotating places is a new practice for which there is clearly a need, but for which there is no successful service at the moment because the technology for capturing one’s location is not quite yet cheap enough, reliable enough, and easy enough to use. In other words, to get a ‘Flickr for maps‘ we first need a ‘digital camera for location.’ Approaching sociality as object-centered is to suggest that when it becomes easy to create digital instances of the object, the online services for networking on, through, and around that object will emerge too. Social network theory fails to recognise such real-world dynamics because its notion of sociality is limited to just people.

“For a much more elaborate academic argument about object-centered sociality, see the chapter on ‘Objectual Practice’ by Karin Knorr Cetina in The practice turn in contemporary theory, edited by Theodor R. Schatzki, Karin Knorr Cetina, and Eike von Savigny (London 2001: Routledge.)”

Karin Knorr Cetina in “Objectual Practice” in The Practice Turn in Contemporary Theory goes even farther as her research shows that object relational thinking is key to the knowledge worker.  These two vignettes look at the difference between the routine and the difficult for the knowledge worker (protein research scientists):

“Vignette 1:  “Cloning is perhaps one level below what one calls exciting in the lab.  You sit down, you think about a particular construct, and then you clone it.  That’s not very different from deciding to dig a hole in the ground and then to dig it – it’s about that exciting.”

“Vignette 2:  “Well, the protein, because it has previously been a problem, the protein is a bit more moody.  I think about it, I get more visual, I treat it differently, in one word, I pay more attention to it, it’s more precious.  I don’t handle it routinely yet.

“How do you visualize it?”

“I see the protein in a certain size in front of me.  I visualize why it is precipitating, then I visualize the solution and I visualize the falling out and the refolding process.  I also visualize the protein denaturing, stretched out and then coming together, and I visualize how it is being shot into the solution and what it is going through when it starts to fold.  With the expression, I visualize the bacteria when they grow in a more anthropomorphic way, why are they happy?  I try to visualize them shaking around, I visualize aerobic effects, the shaking, how much they tumble around and what could have an effect.”

Cetina describes the process that the researcher uses to deploy relational resources to help her solve the difficult research questions.

Ibarra and Hunter in a Harvard Business Review article “How Leaders Create and Use Networks” add another dimension to social networks that mirrors Joshua Meyrowitz’s description of the many forms of his European trip.  The HBR authors extend the notion of social networks to include personal (friends), operational (who I work with), and strategic (who I learn from and am mentored by).  So social network systems need to not only have mediating objects of socialability but also understand what process is being mediated.

Facebook has done an excellent job with the many ways that it uses photos (and other objects) as mediating objects of sociality.  We first glimpse the power of pictures to mediate socialability from the ever growing recent photo albums page that happens as my “friends” add to their collections:

Then as I add a photo to my collection, Facebook prompts me to easily identify people and connect a name to a face while uploading photos:

After identifying a Facebook friend in a photo, that photo appears automatically on my friend’s profile and history pages.  Facebook makes it easy to use photos as objects of socialability.

Building on Digital Assets – The Mediating Objects of Socialability

The book Smart World by Richard Ogle does an excellent job of building on the themes of the power of interacting laws that I first encountered with the application BOIDS.  Brian Eno in his book A Year with Swollen Appendices describes the rules that he sees tying his own generative music with applications like BOIDS: “A by-the-by: I’ve noticed that all these complex systems generators (such as ‘Life’ and ‘Boids’ (the flocking one) and ‘The Great Learning’) have something in common – just three rules for each.  And these three rules seem to share a certain similarity of relationship: one rule generates, another reduces, another maintains (or a tendency to persist).  I suppose it’s obvious, really, but perhaps it’s not trivial to wonder if those three conditions are all you need to specify in order to create a complex system generator (and then to wonder how those are actually being expressed in complex systems we see around us).”

The rules however need something to operate on – digital artifacts or digital assets.  This section looks at the power and complexity of simple rules operating on digital assets in the context of socialability.

Ogle’s Nine Laws are:

  1. The Law of Tipping Points
  2. The Law of the Fit Get Rich
  3. The Law of the Fit Get Fitter
  4. The Law of Spontaneous Generation
  5. The Law of Navigation
  6. The Law of Hotspots
  7. The Law of Small World Networks
  8. The Law of Integration
  9. The Law of Minimal Effort

As I looked at successful web sites and software products that have emerged over the last 20 years, I began to see a pattern emerge – building from digital assets rather than financial or physical assets.  I call the pattern r2NDA for recombinant reflective networked digital assets.  The challenge is now to extend the r2NDA concept to embrace Ogle’s nine laws.

The best software products and web sites aren’t just about code, they also include ways to extend the code either through content or plug-ins.  Digital assets can be as simple as a record in a database or as complicated as a browser plug-in or as derivative as analytics on unstructured text to create a structured digital asset.  A networked digital asset is the start of creating a value web by linking my digital assets through the network with someone else’s digital assets.  Recombinant implies that I am able to recombine either my digital assets or networked digital assets to provide increased value to the user.  Finally, reflective has several meanings.  The simplest meaning is to create a mirrored space, much like the person-to person (P2P) technologies are doing today.

Groove is an example of a technology that mirrors collaborative spaces on peer computers rather than on servers.  The next level of reflection is to pay attention to the pattern of user interactions to discern a higher order intent.  For example, may notice that a person is buying several books on management and begin to figure out that someone has gotten a promotion.  The system could test that assumption directly and then start suggesting hardware or software to purchase, other books, or possibly seminars to attend.  The last meaning of reflection is similar to what Donald Schon describes in The Reflective Practitioner, where not only do you feed back from actions and their consequences to the next set of actions to take, but you also feed back to your theory about what is taking place.  This type of reflection enables double loop learning.

If we take a look at the Books section of we can deconstruct the website from an r2NDA perspective:

From a digital asset standpoint, we can start a long list of the digital assets that has just on the books section.  Here is just a partial list of the assets:

  • Customer demographic information like name, shipping address, bill to address
  • What topics I’m interested in like:  business and investing, computers and internet, health, mind and body.
  • Order transaction history
  • Ratings of books that were purchased or are owned
  • Reviews of books
  • Database of information about books, both books in print and out of print
  • Cover images for each book
  • Inventory status for each book
  • Selling history of each book

With a well developed site like Amazon, the list of digital assets can go on and on.

To see the effect of recombinant, we start looking at the ways in which Amazon begins to make recommendations.  The book recommendations are made by looking at others who have bought the same book and seeing what they also purchased (collaborative filtering).  Another way of recombining assets is to look for demographic indicators – people like you are also buying XYZ book.  While there is not a clear example of reflection, we are starting to see the capabilities for humans to reflect on the underlying assets through the introduction of related lists of books whenever one does a search. Searchers can also rate other user reviews as to how helpful they were in selecting a given book.

Finally, from a networked digital asset standpoint we see a couple of examples.  Within Amazon, digital assets are networked from store to store.  The system comes up with messages like people who bought this book also liked these CDs or DVDs.  Perhaps, the most useful networking of assets is connecting the user to UPS for package tracking of an order.  When Amazon acknowledges an order it also provides the tracking number and a linkage to the UPS site so that the user can check to see where the package is on its journey from Amazon to the specified delivery site.

To get a better feel for how others use digital assets, use the r2NDA descriptive model to look at 3-4 websites.  I would recommend doing a full deconstruction of one of the Amazon store sites all the way through to the ordering and delivery assets that are kept.  Then I would look at two other classes of sites:  financial investing and trading, and travel sites with an airline that you have frequent flyer relationships with.  If you get a chance, pay particular attention to any mapping or analysis tools that might be present like Fidelity and are providing.  What are the r2NDAs used to supply the market map at

As a brainstorming or design tool, r2NDA is particularly helpful at the innovation stage.  The sequence that one should think through the r2NDA in order to be prescriptive is:

  • Identify the Digital Assets
  • In what ways can the Digital Assets be recombined
  • What other Digital Assets can I network my Digital Assets to
  • For a given user, reflect on the pattern of usage to determine higher order intents or goals on the part of influencers, purchasers and users.

Perhaps, the biggest step forward for the kinds of software tools that we want to build is to have the software itself be reflective so that it can learn as it interacts with users.  For example, in the early use of Attenex Patterns, each of the attorneys constantly developed new strategies for how to identify clearly non-responsive and clearly responsive documents.  These strategies need to be rapidly shared with the other attorneys doing the initial review on that case.  Over time we want to figure out how to incorporate these strategies into the system so that more of the analysis can be done automatically.  The r2NDA approach is another version of the content with context that builds on mediating objects of socialability.

This entry was posted in Content with Context, Human Centered Design, social networking, Transactive Content, User Experience and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Mediating Objects of Socialability

  1. Pingback: Everything Old is New Again | On the Way to Somewhere Else

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