Social Objects: Notes on Knitting in America

I recently bought a classic, cherry-finish  River City hourglass. It was the first time I deliberately bought something to serve as a social object, which I’ll define as any tangible entity that can catalyze a characteristic social chemistry. In this case, the hourglass helped me tweak the ambiance of a writers meetup I run in the Washington, DC area.

hourglass

I’ve wondered for years about how people connect over particular elements of their environment, ranging from water coolers and YouTube videos to parrots. We are currently in the thick of social object season:  turkeys, Christmas trees, mistletoe.

Social objects are a complex idea. We need a theory that can provide a conceptual framework and vocabulary, suggest conjectures that might become laws, and distinguish between social objects and related but distinct creatures such as memes, social signals, brands and ritual objects. A good theory should also shed light on specific questions, such as “why have so many hip young American women taken up knitting in recent years?”

I am finally beginning to see the outlines of such a general theory. The first useful inference I have been able to derive is this: when communities digitize, social objects replace walls. I call this the first law of social objects. Let’s work our way up to that. (before more people yell at me… yes, this is an early beta stab at a new theme, so apologies for the length and looseness of editing).

The Universe of Social Objects

I’ve been wondering about how people connect for a while, but I only learned about Jyri Engstrom and Hugh Macleod’s ideas on social objects a few months ago, and realized that I’d found a productive attack on the topic. Unlike Engstrom and MacLeod though, I am primarily interested in physical social objects to begin with, and in their intrinsic nature rather than aspects like sharing or how they induce the structure of social networks. Let’s start with a list of the usual suspects; candidate social objects old and new.

  1. Village well
  2. Office watercooler
  3. Cognac among African Americans
  4. Louis Vuitton purses
  5. Knitting among hip young American women
  6. A street musician
  7. A pet or baby in a public space
  8. That YouTube video of a wedding.
  9. A controversial WikiPedia page
  10. The #iranelection hashtag on Twitter
  11. The public sculptures of Larry Morris,
  12. A coffee table book

I have a growing branch on my social objects trail that has other examples (including people-as-social-objects), but this dozen should be enough. Take a minute to scan the list and mentally pick what you think are the best and worst examples of social objects. Yes, it is a fuzzy set, with degrees of membership, but there’s a point to this exercise.

Done? Let me throw a couple of extreme examples at you, unusual suspects, so you get a sense of the outer limits of the design space we are working with here.

First, consider a delayed flight. You’ve boarded and left the gate, and then the captain announces that you’re going to sit on the tarmac for an hour, thanks to a weather-related ground stop. If you’ve ever been in this situation, you know what happens next: a good subset of people start talking to each other. Here the social object – a delay – is borderline intangible. Almost a metaphysical abstraction. It is also about as simple and attribute-free as a social object can get, since it is just an interval of time.

The second example is from the other end of the spectrum of complexity. It is the traditional  Balinese cockfight, which inspired an influential essay by anthropologist Clifford Geertz (the title of this post is an homage to that essay, “Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight”). The spectacle, as Geertz describes and analyzes it, is about as complex as a social object can get:

But the cockfight is – or more exactly, deliberately is made to be – a simulation of the social matrix, the involved system of crosscutting, overlapping, highly corporate groups –villages, kingroups, irrigation societies, temple congregations, “castes” – in which its devotees live.

Geertz’ article repays careful reading many times over, and illuminates many themes, but the one we are interested in here, is how social objects highlight and reinforce the key elements of the social matrix within which they are embedded. It is through that effect that social objects catalyze connections.

So we’ve seen a few examples, and seen some limit points – nearly featureless and almost intangible social objects at one extreme, and highly elaborate social enactments on the other.

This brings me to the question that interests me. What exactly is a social object? What can we say beyond “catalyzes a specific social chemistry?”

Social Objects and Group Dynamics

An episode of Two and a Half Men highlights some of the subtleties involved in thinking about social objects.

In the episode in question, Alan, the clueless younger brother, is trying to get invited to a regular scotch-and-cigars group of which Charlie, the player older brother, is part. The other characters (correctly) recognize that the group is really a support group for men facing the problems of  early, easy success – too much money, too many women – and (incorrectly) dismiss the scotch and cigars.

Alan clearly does not meet the criteria. Still, the group finally takes pity on him, and overriding Charlie’s objections, lets him join. Alan’s first gauche moves instantly reveal that he does not belong: with a great show of propriety, he declares that he doesn’t want to disrupt the group, and asks whether there are “any rituals I should know about, like a talking stick?”

As you might expect, things get worse, and the episode ends with Alan being humiliated and thrown out of the group.

The interesting thing here is the interplay of two social objects. Alan thinks of the group as a support group, projects his own (clearly feel-good hippie) idea of support groups, and asks about “talking sticks.” He is oblivious to the fact that the real social object of the evening is scotch-and-cigars. A more appropriate opening question would have been, “What are we drinking?” or “Are these Cubans?”

What can we learn about social objects from this little vignette? Plenty. Notice that cigars and scotch act as an exceptionally good filter in picking out the target subculture: manly macho men. Not effete, ineffectual ones like Alan. It sets the tone for the gathering. It is unstructured and mellow, but tough. It is confessional, but in a no-whining-no-bullshit way. There is an element of ritual, but not an overwhelming display. Scotch and cigars signal a certain grown-up-ness about the proceedings. The very idea of a “talking stick” on the other hand, suggests highly structured and ritually procedural settings, governed by parental figures such as therapists (or Native American chiefs).

Social Containers and Object Fields

Is Alan’s talking stick merely an inappropriate social object for the situation, or just a bad social object in an absolute sense? We need some general ideas before we can make sense of this sort of question.

The single most important characteristic of a social object is that it divides the world into an in-group and an out-group. It shares this property with a complementary construct I’ll call a social container. A social container is a boundary-signifier  that isolates an in-group, by explicitly blocking outsiders, who are defined in terms of membership signifiers. Guest lists, passports and actual physical walls are examples.

A social object on the other hand, includes/excludes members by creating an object field. Like a magnetic field, or a gravitational field. Or a catchment area. Fields are defined by a gradually fading “region of attraction.” Two social objects near each other — say a stimulating painting on the wall facing a fireplace in a large room where a party is being held — create invisible boundaries between them where the influence and attraction of the two objects is about equal (like a watershed dividing two valleys). Acting on social graphs, social objects induce geometry where previously there was only topology (if that math reference is too obscure for you, ignore it).

If you suspect that the distinction is about fuzziness of the boundary you are mistaken. Containers can have fuzzy boundaries (race is an example), while object field boundaries can be pretty sharply defined ( Barack Obama either recognizes you, or he does not).

The real distinction is  that social containers merely classify and sort people. Social objects animate them, by stimulating behavioral responses. The tenor of those responses determines membership in the induced group, not a checklist of attributes. Social objects are a behaviorist model of inclusion, while social containers are structuralist models.

The two, however, can interact. A fireplace at a party is a social object that operates within a social container, the home of the host, containing guests the host lets in.

This leads us to first of several important properties of social objects: boundedness.

Ten Properties of Social Objects

Every social object draws from a catchment area defined by its tightest social container. This is a trite observation. A neighborhood knitting group is only accessible to those who live in or near that neighborhood, so a fuzzy geographic (or virtual-geographic) container boundary determines basic access. Beyond that, we get more subtle properties.

  1. Boundedness determines whether or not an object field is contained within, or larger than, its immediate container. An object whose field is larger than its tightest leak-proof container is bound (because the shape of its container, rather than the shape of its field, determines its extent). Otherwise it is unbound.
  2. Fertility: A social object must induce a rich web of associations, and trigger a rich variety of behaviors. This is because it is the pattern of responses in the candidate member that matters. An overall gestalt of behavior. If you clumsily drop a fork once, you won’t necessarily raise eyebrows in high society. On the other hand, a pattern of unpolished table manners marks you out clearly as an outsider. A person around a social object is like filings around a magnet. Some patterns mark you out as iron, others do not. The social object in question here, by the way, is silverware (or chopsticks in China, or your fingers, in India). Quality silverware induces rich associations of high society, and defines a behavioral universe. Note however, that we are talking about fertility of shared associations and common behaviors.  Proust’s famous madeline, that evoked memories of his entire life, does not qualify. You and I would just eat it.
  3. Capacity: Only so many people can stand around a fireplace or watercooler. Only so many people can feel a sense of belongingness before the idea of a nation fragments. Every social object has a capacity. This means that objects with apparently large capacities, such as national flags, actually fragment into aspect-meanings. Blue and Red states in America do not relate to the American flag in the same way (the object is burnable as a socially legitimate act of protest at the extremes of one group, but not in the other).
  4. Tempo: A powerful social object affects emotions, energy levels and our perception of time. A fireplace makes you more mellow, calms you, encourages perspective over immediacy, and slows down the experience of time.
  5. Tribalism: A newspaper is a social object that reinforces an abstract imagined community (a nation) of people who mostly do not know each other. A neighborhood café with a Clover coffee-maker on the other hand, is a social object that reinforces a much smaller community with tribal dynamics. A social object that creates a field that can hold less than 150 (the Dunbar number) people before it gets saturated, is a tribal object. One that can hold more is an imagined-community object.
  6. Context-Sensitivity: Whiskey and cigars were social objects in Charlie’s party, but in other contexts, they might just be whiskey and cigars.
  7. Moderation: Curiously, one of the ways in which social objects catalyze social chemistry is by moderating aspects of interactions that otherwise cause so much discomfort that people avoid contact altogether, or slowing down interactions that would otherwise happen too quickly to allow engagement. An example is an intriguing public sculpture. This idea has been used in these innovative and modern examples of social object design.
  8. Tangibility: Social objects must be tangible; anchored in physical reality. They can be nearly abstract like an airplane delay, but not completely so. Digital social objects too, are physical, because information is physical (techie aside: this is an idea known as Landeur’s principle, and used to prove that Turing machines obey the laws of thermodynamics).
  9. Recognizability: Like brands, social objects must be recognizable, and as we said, must evoke a unique web of shared meanings and associations in members of the social group it defines. There may be many clones (in which case each is locally a social object, as well as an imagined-community object), but it cannot be mistaken for something else.

But perhaps the most important property is property 10, Indirect Salience

Property 10: Indirect Salience

Effective social objects must have a recognizable connection to a theme that, if highlighted, can connect two or more people. This can either be an effect of design or selection. If the social object is to actively influence behavior, it must lend meaning to the behaviors in question. Magnets attract iron. There is a ferromagnetic theme.

But curiously, indirect salience is far more effective than direct salience. A web of connotations with no denotation. The most important kind of indirect salience is metonymy. In language, metonymy is a figure of speech, in which “a thing or concept is not called by its own name, but by the name of something intimately associated with that thing or concept.” Social objects achieve a sort of non-linguistic material metonymy. A club for surrealists might be called “Damp Clocks” for example, by reference to the famous Dali painting. The resultant object field would be more powerful than the “Surrealism Interest Group” container. This indirect salience is a feature social objects share with conceptual metaphor. By not being too in-your-face with one idea, they encourage peripheral vision, gently amplifying some connections, and weakening or destroying others.

I used to be really into amateur astronomy as a kid, and I still remember how I learned to “see” dim objects like the Andromeda galaxy: you look a little to the side, so the light hits a more sensitive part of your retina. Look at it head-on, and it will vanish. A more complex version of this is going on. Social objects are the instruments through which you see society.

Memes, Signals, Brands and Ritual Objects

For quite a while, I was unable to see the distinction between memes and social objects. Why, I wondered, did we need a new term? A meme, if you recall Richard Dawkin’s original model, is merely a fragment of information (physically embodied of course) that successfully replicates and propagates through what we would call, today, the social graph.

The  distinction isn’t sharp, but it is useful nevertheless. Memes are fragments of information that propagate on the social graph. Not all memes are social objects, and not all social objects are memes.

Consider that YouTube video of the wedding. Yeah, that one. The object in question is the hip, dancing entrance made by the wedding party at the start of the ceremony. Was this spectacle a social object or meme? That’s tricky.  It was a creative, tribal social object among the actual attendees. It was a reinforcing social object among groups that merely passed it along and used it to spark conversations (for example, the marketing community, which saw it as an instance of remarkable). Since it was canonized in pop-culture through a parody on The Office, it evolved into a social object at the level of an imagined community (the audience for The Office). And finally, among those who saw it and didn’t connect with anyone over it, it was merely a meme.

Consider social signals next. Say two men in conservative suits run into each other at a technology conference full of laid-back, casually-dressed engineers. The two men might recognize each other as (potentially) Wall Street types. They might even attempt to connect. But the suit is merely a social container (as an abstraction, don’t confuse that with the physical containment that is its utilitarian function) that enables recognition. It does not anchor the discourse. On the other hand, business cards can be social objects, most famously in that terrific scene in American Psycho where a bunch of Wall Street types ooh and aah over pretty much indistinguishable business cards (must read: The Onion: Why Can’t Anyone Tell I’m Wearing This Suit Ironically?).

Simpler examples are wedding rings, old school ties, secret handshakes and the like. All are signal objects, not genuine social objects.

What about brands? The idea of social objects, after all, first took root in the context of “viral” videos and the whole marketing side of social media.

One of Al Ries’ immutable laws of branding holds that you ought to pick proper nouns over common or category names for brands. Amazon.com has more potential than books.com.

Brand names though, need not mean anything. Kodak, famously, is a completely made-up word, chosen for the pure memetic stability of the bookend k’s. Social objects on the other hand, must exhibit the property of indirect salience. Brands are not social objects (though products can be), but can make social objects more powerful by making them more unique (as in the case of the iPod). Is Windows 7 a social object? Read on to find out. That’s one of my mini case-studies.

Ritual objects gave me the most difficulty. Some secularized religious objects with layers of ironic meaning (such as Christmas trees) are clearly social objects because they obey the “richness” attribute. They suggest many associations (Santa, snow, caroling) and spark many behaviors (gift wrapping, singing, “Hannukah bush” jokes and Cartman’s songs on South Park). Unreconstructed ritual objects though, tend to strongly constrain behavior. You must behave in certain constrained (and therefore contained) ways around them, or trouble finds you. The Muhammad cartoons incidents in Danish newspapers illustrated that.

The First Law of Social Objects

Let’s use the elements of the ideas we’ve assembled so far to do a bit of inference.

What does digitization of culture do to social objects? “It digitizes them” is the wrong answer. That’s a minor effect (yes, YouTube videos join fireplaces, but that’s minor).

Here’s what happens. Our social graph neighborhoods grow ever bigger and more distended and unpredictable, to the point where none of the usual social container, such as village or town walls, can contain them. Even cities and countries cannot contain them. The only meaningful container is the surface of the planet. Hence, globalization.

But this does not mean that a “global village” is formed in any meaningful sense. McLuhan used that term in a special sense (“retribalization”). What happens is that all meaningful social objects become unbound, because their tightest container – the world – is much larger than their fields. But their fields do not include the entire planet (except very rarely, as in the case of the images of 9/11).

So the first law is this:

When communities digitize, social objects replace walls.

I mean replace them socially. Walls cease to be meaningful social containers, but watershed lines between overlapping social object fields still matter. Even in those ancient cities where people still live inside old walled parts, the kids inside are busy texting to a social graph of mobile friends that seeps effortlessly through those walls. All traditional containment has been breached. The world becomes a massive tangled web of virtually local, geographically global, social-object fields of various sizes. Some call that virtual, cultural, balkanization.

Applications

Let’s do some applications. Mini case-studies.

Windows 7 Launch Parties

By now, it has become clear that the Windows 7 launch party idea has been an embarrassment. (I can’t find that post with a Googler making fun of the kit he/she received — help?).

What happened? Windows 7 is a brand, has impoverished associations of the wrong sort, and while salient, is directly salient. That doesn’t work. One association overwhelms everything else.

A pity, since Hugh MacLeod is a Microsoft sympathizer and actually came up with a great Microsoft social object: the blue monster. “Blue Monster” parties would have worked much better.

Facebook Networks and Twitter Lists

Facebook shut down regional networks, while Twitter launched lists. One Web behemoth was admitting the increasing irrelevance of the most powerful less-than-global contained imagined communities we’ve seen, while another was riding the increased relevance of leaky networks that respect no social container boundaries at all. I haven’t created any Twitter lists myself, but none of the lists I’ve been put on seem to map neatly to any traditional social container. Nobody has put me on lists named “India” or “University of Michigan” or “Xerox.”

This does not mean though, that geography is irrelevant. As communities fragment and “default” containers (both the workplace and the neighborhood are weakening as containers) vanish, other geographically anchored communities, built within object  fields of things like football team mascots or hourglasses, are taking shape. Face-to-face contact is still central to social interaction, and therefore geography matters in the design of social objects. Which brings me to meetup.com.

1000 Words a Day

The writing meetup group I mentioned before is an example of a small social engineering experiment of my own. I was unhappy with the writers groups I found in my area because (to use my new vocabulary) they were container-based, not object-based. I found that I was having a mixed reaction to the member lists of existing groups, and unhappy with the typical focus on critiquing and mutual support. It was all (forgive me) a little too talking-stick for me.

So, with my usual sociopathic approach, I started my own. After some thought, I decided the social object would be the Microsoft Word wordcount box, that one thing all serious writers, who are actually writing rather than making excuses, identify with. “1000 Words a Day” seemed like a nice rhetorical/realistic objective statement, one that would weed out self-absorbed whiners who wanted to talk more about writing than actually write.

After a few sessions, it became clear that things weren’t quite right. The “1000 Words a Day” word-count social object was lending too procedural an atmosphere to the sessions, and was also not indirect enough or tangible enough. I wanted to soften and defocus things.

And then inspiration hit. I had been meaning to buy a stopwatch to time us anyway, but had been worried by (with hindsight) the fact that it would make the proceedings even more left-brained. On the other hand, I did want to preserve the sensitivity to the idea of time passing, and the sense of urgency required to get people to write.

Voila: I added the hourglass. A poetic and philosophical, but still utilitarian, symbol of what we wanted to do. It worked, and nicely complemented the wordcount motif. The members liked it. I take it to every meeting now. Okay, it is a little talking-stick-ish.

Knitting Groups

Finally, let’s do the title case study. I first noticed the knitting trend almost 6 years ago. Hip-looking young girls were sitting around engaged in that fuddy-duddy grandmotherly occupation, knitting.

I was finishing my PhD at the time, and just starting to feel truly disconnected from high schoolers and undergraduates. Fortunately, a hip young fresh(wo)man acquaintance explained that it was a new trend among alternate kids.

Those alternate kids are now grown up. These days, I frequently see a regular group of young, polished and sophisticated looking early-career knitters at my local Starbucks. Some are in professional looking suits. Others are in casual clothes.

I’ve heard very local, phenomenological explanations of what’s going on from women. It all has to do, apparently, with post-feminist bonding among women. Kinda like the Roller Derby, which inspired that recent Ellen Page/Drew Barrymore movie, Whip It (social object: the roller derby event)

That explanation doesn’t interest me. My question is why knitting? Why not weaving, pottery or a million other things? Here’s why:

Knitting is a calm, low-tempo activity that can occur in public spaces. It is not demanding enough that conversation must stop, but not easy enough to allow unrestrained and excited talk. In its expected context, it signals traditional gender roles. In its hip context though, it is neither a non sequitur, nor a deeply significant reconstructed act. Since you will see young women dressed mostly in somewhat alternate clothes, or professional clothes,  knitting,  you have to read the whole scene, not just the knitting. The scene suggests both being comfortable in the mainstream and apart from it, maintaining a distinct identity. But since knitting is normally a traditional-gender-roles social object, it filters out the old-school feminists and neo-hippies. But it continues to effectively exclude men.

Contrast that with, for example, weaving (a common artsy occupation among older New Agey liberal women). Ostensibly a similar activity, but a vastly different social object.

A Social Object for Social Object-ers

I couldn’t resist. The Klein bottle is a great candidate social object for people interested in social objects. It is has no inside or outside. You can interpret that figuratively as an object that contains the whole universe. You can buy neat glass Klein bottles from Acme. If someone wants to start a “Klein Bottle Club” meetup group in the DC area, I’ll join, and donate a bottle.

Remember Kramer’s coffee-table book about coffee tables, that could become a coffee table (fold-out legs on the back cover?).

Where to Now?

I seem to keep getting hooked by these very rich veins of exploration that first excite, and then dismay me. You find one promising attack, and suddenly you are up nights thinking about how the angle sheds new lights on all sorts of questions. So my usual teaser: if you are interested in fuller analyses, post comments with your thoughts and letting me know if you want me to continue. Some potential follow-up topics are: how social objects work with introversion, how social objects undermine the idea of global citizenship, digital social objects, social objects in marketing…

One topic that I’ve had a good deal of success analyzing this way is systems and processes in decision-making. Rather than look at them as documented, codified, embedded and rational workflows, I view systems and processes as carefully designed patterns of overlapping social-object fields and containers. I devote a full chapter to this view in my upcoming book, Tempo. It was working on that chapter that inspired this article.  Think of it as whole-brained, emotionally intelligent system-and-process design.

And here is a link to the map view of the Social Objects  trail I’ve been referencing throughout this post. I am starting to really get the hang of using trails as a medium of writing. If you can think of other great examples of social objects, post ’em here and I’ll add them to the trail.

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About Venkatesh Rao

Venkat is the founder and editor-in-chief of ribbonfarm. Follow him on Twitter

Comments

  1. Somewhat complementary to your system of social objects are what I suppose you would term “social anti-objects”. That is, objects of mutual disdain that a group organizes around. That band you used to like before they sold out, chain restaurants that drove away all the quirky independent places, France.

    One interesting distinction, is that social objects splinter hierarchically & social anti-objects splinter recursively. That is, if the group that bonds over scotch & cigars becomes too diffuse, then sub groups form that prefer quiet appreciative sipping vs boozy rousing conversation but both still love scotch & cigars. But if the group of people who hate LCD Sound system for selling out become too diffuse, then splinter groups form who now hate the people who hate LCD Sound system for selling out.

    I think this has interesting implications for digitizing communities and how they use their social objects. I haven’t really thought much in this area but it seems fertile for investigation.

    The distinction between social objects and social anti-objects is fascinating to me as a predictor of personality & maturity. I am very quick to judge people based on the ratio of social objects to anti-objects they present & my general experience is that people who are comprised entirely of anti-objects are toxic and to be avoided at all costs.

    • This social anti-objects (or anti social-objects or anti-social objects) are an interesting problem. Like kids who end up getting defined by their parents through rebellion as effectively as through blindly doing what they are told.

      I haven’t really thought about this, but it is clearly a very important effect and very different in some ways compared to ‘attractor’ social objects. You make some good practical points, and I wonder what the corresponding conceptual points are.

      For example, the “alternate” culture in a city that defines itself as “against mainstream sell out” needs the physical/geographic social container (the city) within which to be a margin. Center-periphery dynamics assume that there is a boundary to the periphery. Or the antipode topology: people who don’t like big towns go live ins mall towns. People who don’t like the West coast vibe go live on the East coast. People who don’t like Rock Band A go for Rock Band B which projects a different vibe.

      Which brings me to an interesting conjecture by way of the magnetism analogy and my earlier ideas on evil twins. Maybe social objects always occur in good/evil twin pairs :) Just like there are no magnetic monopoles (though there was some recent news than some esoteric monopole objects have been discovered).

      Worth exploring maybe.

  2. Very interesting article. One thing I think may work as a social object in the techie sphere is the operating system on one’s laptop. Vast majority of the people have Windows, and quite a few have Macs, but then there are those who set themselves apart by having Linux as the default or only OS on their laptops. Quite a few of them really do only want Linux given what they do, but there are plenty who have a ‘more geeky than thou’ vibe about it.

  3. Loved the article, and this teaser sparked my interest in particular: “how social objects undermine the idea of global citizenship.”

  4. Love this post! I would like to add that (from my experience) every social object has its zealots, who become the prime example of a “stereotype” (like Tron Man) which adversely affects the perception of the group outside of it, (e.g. “Mommy Bloggers”).

    Would love to hear more on your thoughts on social object relationships in the online world.

  5. Question about terminology: “Digitized” objects and communities are things that exist in the computer world? Or does the word mean something else (or something more)?

    • I mean the impact on digital technology on the entire world, not just cyberspace… how it is changing work, lifestyles etc.

  6. Something about the way you construct sentences is a bit off putting. The net effect is that it makes simple ideas complex sounding. I only have a passing interest in language and writing, unlike you who is heading a writer group, So I am sure you know better.

    But as a reader sometimes I find myself re-reading sentences or zoning out. One constructive thing I can say is if you can find a way to shorten sentences it will be great. And second thing is things are recursively layered and that puts a lot of pressure on my tender scratch memory. Read these sentences:

    (1) The fly the spider the cat caught caught was swallowed by the old lady.

    (2) The cat caught the spider that caught the fly the old lady swallowed.

    It is easy to make sense of the second sentence right? (…right?). I think that is because it does not strain my temporary memory too much. It doesn’t ask me to cache the whole sentence before it is done. When it says “The cat caught the spider”, I already setup an association with the cat and spider and moved on with them together as one unit to the next part.

    Example from this article:
    And finally, among those who saw it and didn’t connect with anyone over it, it was merely a meme.

    You see we have 2 ideas between “And finally ” and “it was merely a meme”. This is what makes me re-read. Cause I forgot what “And finally” was going to say.

    A useful heuristic would be to give yourself a quota of commas per article. Instead of using commas to continue a sentence for ever. Stop them and start them again.

    But besides language quibbles, let me say that I like your blog very much and the ideas that you put forth, I would still slowly read and re-read till my slow brain can catch up to it.

    • Undeniably true. Those are the perils of writing in beta when your thoughts are somewhat tangled :) The last 2 posts have been forays into new topics for me, and such posts do tend to be overlong, and constructed with sentences that look like spaghetti.

      Thank you for bearing with me… as/if I proceed with new topics, my writing does tend to get tighter.

  7. Hmm…this one’s a bit all over the place for me. It lacks the focus of your Gervais Principle posts. I mean, almost anything can be a social object, that’s a given. I think if you’d picked fewer examples to illustrate your larger observations, this piece would’ve been more effective. Hourglass, writing class, fireplace, knitting, airplane delays…it’s all a tad much.

    But as always, I love how you think and how deep you can get on a subject. A lot of people till the land, but you drill for oil. :) Amazing ability.

  8. Adrian Dunston says:

    Will Wright may be a couple of steps ahead of you here. If you haven’t ever played it, check out a copy of the Sims 2 or 3. Most objects in these games are usable by one person (a mirror), but some are usable by many at once (a television). Certain objects facilitate social interactions that are not possible without them (hot tubs). Some objects are invested with control over long social interactions. The cash register at a restaurant is the object invested with the “eat together” series of interactions. This is a gross oversimplification of the social object phenomenon you are discussing. It is also a well-thought-out codification that is shallow enough to express in game-terms, but deep enough to make gameplay seem natural and lifelike.

    If nothing else, playing the game a bit, and noting how the “group objects” are different from the containing buildings and neighborhood and the non-group objects may help focus your thoughts on this topic. Also, the game’s pretty fun.

  9. Eric Jln says:

    The whole article is engaging, but it seems to be several degrees off. Perhaps the clearest example of what I mean is this:
    In your “early beta stab at a new theme”, a theme which is a topic Anthropologists have been looking at for decades, you claim to have deduced a new, unique, universal law of human behavior and even gone so far as to call it the first law of something.

    I am not addressing the observation, which is really interesting and which I hope you continue to explore. I am just addressing an apparent lack of reflexivity in your thinking and writing, which seems to be leading to a great deal of hubris.

    • I think of it as a mix of laziness (easier to think things through for myself than to dive into the literature), indifference (I am not trying to get a PhD in anthropology or impress that community), and lame attempts at humor rather than hubris, but I suppose that may not be obvious to new readers of this site :)

      Welcome.

      Venkat

  10. I guess the the social objects chapter in Tempo never materialized. Or did I just miss it?