When the Souvenir Becomes the Social Object


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"A book is a souvenir of an idea" - Seth Godin

"The term, "Social Object" can be a bit heady for some people. So often I'll use the term, "Sharing Device" instead." - Hugh McLeod / Gaping Void

Seen in these pictures is the 19 lb Behemoth - This Might Work - compilation of Seth Godin's blog posts for the past seven years.

I'm sure many of those who received it, have it sitting on youre desk or office coffee table.

I'm using it, not as a souvenir of Seth's blog posting, but as a social object, "a sharing device" as Hugh McLeod suggests.

How a Social Object Works



Open up the book, and people want to look at it. 

Open to a page like either of these, and it provides a prime opportunity to begin to talk about change.

I've carried the Behemoth into several different settings this week, knowing that virtually no one there will know who Seth God is.

The intense interest that these pages foster demand conversation and exploration of the ideas in it.

My recommendation is find a way to take it with you, and when you have a few moments, take it out, and begin to read it. Share it with people, and talk about the ideas that have made a difference in your life and work.

I bought a copy of Whatcha Gonna Do With That Duck?, the abridged version of It Might Work. I'm using it as a loaner. You can too.

Using It Might Work as a Source for Social Objects

The design of It Might Work provides opportunities for using the images as conversation starters. That essentially what a Social Object provides. A way to start a conversation that can lead to a relationship, and maybe tomorrow, change the world.

Take pictures of the large format ideas pages like I have done here. Post them on your blog or Facebook page with your own insights into Seth's ideas. Make it a conversation.

Just look at these images. If you posted one a week in your office by the coffee machine, what kind of conversations are possible.

  LizardShutUp Passion AbundanceScarcity  PeopleNotOrganizations TrueFans LazinessEmotionalLabor LastForever Soon Ideas1-2

Ultimately, the Behemoth is not a depository of past ideas from Seth Godin. It isn't a relic, or souvenir. It is a tool for sparking conversations about ideas.


As a creative compilation of ideas, it fascinates people, just as it did my friend, Jina Hong, seen here.  As an artist, she was inspired by what she saw.

Books are great to share. But it is rare that a book can be utilized in quite the same way It Might Work can be.

If this still seems a bit weird, try this.

Take the book to a public place, and begin leafing through it. When a page captures a person's imagination, take her picture, and posted at your blog or on Facebook or Twitter. Get her email, and send her the picture.

You've not only made some new friends, but have made a difference in their lives by inspiring them with one of Seth's ideas.

This takes effort, but I'm certain it is worth it.


A Conversation about Constant Change - 6

This post is from Steve Devijver who is the author of A Strategy of Constant Change, available as a free ebook at endesha.

Q from Ed: From your perspective, what is a social object? How do we identify them? And more importantly, how do we nurture them so that they provide a basis for a sustainable relationship over time?

Ed, thanks for your latest answer, I'm not sure I understood all of it but it certainly made me think. I guess you'll have to elaborate some more on social contexts later on.

Social objects are very dear to me because I believe they hold the key to what it is to be a human being. Examples of social objects are pictures, videos, articles, cameras, cars, ... . Social objects are also elusive, because we don't really understand them all that well. I think the most interesting thing about social objects is that they're young: they've only been "discovered" in 2001, and after that they've been picked up and further developed by people involved in social networks, like Jyri Engeström and Hugh MacLeod.

So social objects are defined by a little bit of academic context and a lot of lore. Social objects are not physical things: they exist in our mind. According to the academic description social objects are internal articulations of real-world objects that make further exploration possible. They are meaning producing and practice generating.

Play comes to mind when I think about social objects. You know, to play with something we need to have an internal articulation of what we're playing with and the play itself is further exploration. Also, social objects are not limited to internal articulations of real-world objects. They can be internal articulations of objects in any world. I'm thinking about the online game World of Warcraft. This is not a real world, but players do need an understanding of the objects in that world in order to function properly as players.

Like with anything related to our brain, everybody in every culture uses social objects all of the time, but that doesn't mean everybody will immediately understand what social objects are. Just as it's not easy to understand what emotions are although we're driven by them all of the time. Social objects are abstract: they're more elusive than the things they describe. This means that social objects are there, but we don't have to understand them to use them. Our brain deals with social objects on auto-pilot, without our cognitive intervention.

But once we understand social objects are there, what they are, and how we can benefit from them an entire new world opens. This started to happen over the last couple of years. The easier part to understand about social objects is the first part of its academic description: we can understand what internal articulations are, and we can understand how they might allow for further exploration. Give a child a tennis ball and a racket and the child will figure things out. That's the easy part.

The social in social object is much more elusive to understand. This refers to social objects as meaning producing and practice generating which is the second part of the academic description. It took me a long time to figure this out, but here it is: memes and social objects are closely related. Memes are ideas or behavior that travel been brains through communication. The meme as a concept is closely related to the gene, where genes travel between living organisms through reproduction.

The gene needs living organisms to reproduce in order for the gene to continue to exist. The meme similarly needs brains to communicate in order for the meme to continue to exist. Just like living organisms are created by genes, social objects inside our individual brains are created by memes. So there's a social object inside our brain for every object we know: every book, every movie, every picture we've ever seen, every car we've ever driven, every dish we've ever eaten, even trail we've ever walked on, every beach town we've ever visited and so on.

Media are special because they allow us to exchange social objects much more effectively than ever before. This explains why science is in so much trouble today. Let me elaborate.

When Gutenberg invented the printing press in 1439 it set about a printing spree of ideas, which ultimately led to the creation of the Royal Society in London in 1660. The people gathered in the Royal Society had enough of the wild claims by just about everybody about the universe, human nature, God, ... . They set up a simple rule that you can come before the Royal Society and talk about anything you want as long as you can prove your claims through experiments on stage. This led to development of the scientific method, but not without the help of Immanuel Kant.

Kant claimed - which is now widely accepted - there is no way of knowing whether what we experience through our senses is real or not. We cannot validate the information we perceive. I mean, this is what the movie The Matrix is about, right? Scientist's response to this has been that only empirical information is valid proof for scientific experiments: you boil water, and you notice on the thermometer the boiling starts at 100 degree Celcius. You publish your findings along with your method of doing your experiment. This allows other people to repeat your experiment and verify whether their results are as described or as predicted. What's important here is that this experiment is based on empirical evidence: the reading of the thermometer gauge, the description of the boiling water, the description of setting up the experiment. Everything about scientific experiments is empirical, thought experiments are not accepted as proof.

What's required to maintain this empirical foundation of scientific experiments is constant validation through peer review, and the intention and motivation to keep the scientific movement alive. That went pretty well, until the Gutenberg revolution ended.

In the post-Gutenberg revolution anybody can publish anything, and entire movements that don't agree with the scientific method can just as easily take hold, and for example force the teaching of intelligent design in schools. The reason this is possible is because people own the media today through social networks, and the Internet more generally. They can organize themselves to spread ideas that before could never have spread. And as these ideas spread social objects spread too. I have a social object on intelligent design in my head! How could that have happened? Because we don't control the creation of social objects, reading a critique on intelligent design is enough to create that social object.

The scientific method is a potent and consistent set of rules that are valuable, but social objects are value-free: there's probably no consistent bias for Good social objects or against Bad social objects. So the scientific method today no longer has the upper hand and has to share the social object space with all those ideas scientists have fought against for centuries. What social media have done is open the floodgates, and I can imagine why some people believe this is a bad thing. However, things will not return to how they were before unless somebody shuts down the Internet.

It's fascinating how easily social objects travel, seemingly without constraint. As I've indicated before though, it's not because I have a social object on intelligent design in my head I'm suddenly converted despite my will. That's not how social objects work. They're more subtle. As we do further exploration we're depending on our convictions of how the world works and on our morality to act true to ourselves.

The reason why Internet scams reportedly work so well is because a tiny amount of people is unable to filter out the scams from the genuine offers, and what sets this filter failure in motion is their initial exploration of this social object they found in their mailbox. The failure is in the filters, but if the filters are destined to fail then the point of no return is the initial exploration of the social object behind the scam.

Ever since I've discovered social object theory I've become fascinated to discover a larger mechanistic view of human beings that is actually human-being-friendly. By that I mean, my view on social objects does not diminish human nature to a source of evil. What it does is enrich our view on human nature, without judging.

I can talk much more about this, but I think that's enough for now. As you can imagine social objects can be conductive for building relationships, but they can also obstruct relationships. In the end I believe is all depends how the meeting of our individual filters, morality, and views on human nature work out.

So here's a question for you Ed:

Q: You describe an organizational setting as a social context. I see an organization as a network of relationships. I'm still not sure if you believe we're talking about the same thing, or whether we're talking about different levels. Can you elaborate on your internal articulation of the social context? How does it define an organization? And how can personal relationships transcend the social context?

A Conversation about Constant Change - 5

Here is my response to Steven Devijver's latest question (below) author of the free ebook, The Strategy of Constant Change

Q: You talk about social contexts, I talk about networks of relationships, but I think we're talking about the same thing. In your professional life, how do you look at your commercial relationships (how are they created, maintained; how do they evolve?) And how do you look at economic value in relationships (compared to contracts)?
Relations in Social Context
Here' a simple diagram that illustrates what I see.

I meet people within a social context. It could be through a social organization or a business. Every organizational setting is a social context. If we are merely social, a relationship doesn't really form. We are simply acquaintances. We share a common set of interests, that are called social objects. The existence of the social object doesn't mean a relationship forms. A relationship is established when two or more people decide that their connection transcends the social context. Something personal takes places as a result.

Here's a personal example. On vacation, I met a man name John. We are as different as night and day. He shoes horses for a living. I do organizational consulting. Yet, one day he saw that I was writing in a journal. He had never seen anyone who would write thoughts down on vacation. We began to talk, and found that we had much in common that a surface view would not reveal. He was a wise, insightful guy who understood as well as anyone I know what I do. Our relationship grew and transcended the social context of vacation. A decade later, we are still close friends though we live far a part.

In my work, I meet people and I share my conversation guides. The guides serve as a social object to provide a stronger basis for a relationship to form than simply being physically or virtually present.  I use the guides as way to create a bond of understanding. Once an understanding of their situation reaches a certain point, I'll ask if they would like a proposal. The project proposal is a tool for deepening our commitment to working together. Once the relationship has established a shared purpose, then we can go back into the social context and make a difference.

I don't look at the relationship from an economic perspective. I see the social context as the economic context. I see the relationship as personal. Whether the need is organizational or personal, I am there to provide help as is appropriate and effective to the relationship. I met a fellow at a networking event the other night. We talked about the guides, and he keep seeing people he knew that would benefit from them. So, he offered to gather them together, to create a social context, where relationships between me and his friends and clients could be formed. I offered to him to do my Leading from the Middle presentation for free, for these people. These clients and friends of his then pay me to come in to help them with their business. The context and the project are business and the place where economics takes place. The relationship is personal. I want to establish friendships that last after the project.

Another example, I have a friend, Cary, whose son was in our scout troop. He left his job and moved to a city an hour away to join with two other guys in starting a business. A year or so into this venture, difficulties in the partnership relationship emerged. I came in and worked with them on trying to resolve their situation. Because he is my friend first, I'll meet with him and talk about the business. In fact, I'll talk with him forever if that is what he needs. Then if there is a reason to enter into the social context of his business to do work within their organizational structure, then I'll charge them for that.

My aim is to establish client relationships that last a life time. Not all of them will result in this way, but many do. For example, my planning projects are conducted by a committee. Typically, I work with the chair of the committee more intensely that the rest. A relationship in many cases forms that transcends the project. In the course of doing business, we talk about our families, what's happening to us personally. As a result, I can call upon them years later to renew for a moment a relationship that3dLeadership - Mission-Vision-Values was prominent for us for that moment in time. Many of these people were the ones whom I asked to vote for Say Thanks, Every Day in the Johnny Bunko contest. And the did so, and I'm grateful to them.

This leads to my last observation. Relationships without a social context are difficult to sustain. When you blend relationships with a social context, usually a purpose to your relationship develops. If this purpose is not focused on some impact that you want to achieve, then the friendship will not be sustainable. 

Look at the Circle of Impact diagram. I can have an idea. If I never share it with someone else, it goes nowhere. If it never gets translated into the mechanism of an organizational structure, it never has the opportunity to reach its potential. Values are what connect relationships together. Too often, we think that social context or the organizational structure is what unifies people. I don't think that even an organization's mission unifies people together. No, their values do. This is why I talk a lot about values with my clients. Also, if all we have is an relationship of shared values, and their is no place, no social context,  where those values matter, then it is difficult to sustain the relationship. My issue with most social contexts is that they are either all ideas or all relationships, and no action.

Action takes place in the social context. We, together, in our relationship, work within a social context to do something that achieves impact. We don't just hang out. We don't just project our personalities on to an unsuspecting, unreceptive world. We come together focused what we in relationship with one another can do in this specific context to achieve the impact we desire together.  And I see this as the dynamic that leaders must address every day.

My friendship with Tom Morris, whom I frequently mentioned here, began my second day of college. We were casual friends within a large social circle of friends. After college, we went in different directions. I keep up with him through other people. Then one day 14 years after we last saw each other, I found that I was going to be near where he and his family lived. I arranged to spend a day with him, and we found that our life's path on a spiritual, intellectual, and professional level were remarkably similar.  As a result, we have maintained almost daily contact ever since. Our relationship is strong, not because we move in the same social context, because we don't at all. Instead, the social object that creates the bond between us is our shared interest in the application of ancient wisdom within organizations. We enter our individual social contexts everyday through the world of ideas, and through the world of the relationships we individually have in our unique contexts. Last year, we had the opportunity for the first time to do two events where we worked together in the same context. It was fantastic because we both saw how our differences were complementary to one another. In those two instances, the dynamic of the Circle of Impact came together.

This has been extremely helpful to me. You have helped me articulate what I live everyday. No one has ever asked me the question that you did here. I thank you, Steven, for that gift.  You have affirmed the truth that we discover new aspects of our lives in conversation.

My next question your view of social objects.

Q. From your perspective, what is a social object? How do we identify them? And more importantly, how do we nurture them so that they provide a basis for a sustainable relationship over time?

Values 2.0

The Value of Values
For the past year I have been involved with a project where values are at the center of the development of leadership teams and organizational development. In this project, a cross-section of the company developed a values statement that they believe, and I concur, is representative of the values of the company's people. Their values statement has been warmly and enthusiastically received by the company. I'm very pleased by this and the efforts that their leadership has made to inform and deploy the values throughout the company.

My conclusion having gone through this experience is that values are a social mechanism that unites people around a set of shared ideas or beliefs. Whether the idea is integrity or creativity, the idea provides meaning and purpose for people. When that idea is shared with others who also value it, a social context for their relationships makes a difference in ways not possible otherwise.

I also see that the values culture of a business is integral to the healthy functioning of human relationships within an organizational context.  Too many organizations ignore this facet of leadership. They treat values as an ancillary exercise that is elective and marginal in impact. I'm convinced that a shift in understanding is taking place that is changing not only the conception of values, but the application of them within organizations.

Social Objects

I've been a regular reader of Hugh MacLeod's GapingVoid blog for a long time. I find him one of the most insightful and practical thinkers around. What caught my eye was an idea that he has written and spoken about called "social objects." Here's how Hugh defines a social object.

The Social Object, in a nutshell, is the reason two people are talking to each other, as opposed to talking to somebody else. Human beings are social animals. We like to socialize. But if (we) think about it, there needs to be a reason for it to happen in the first place. That reason, that "node" in the social network, is what we call the Social Object.

What Hugh sees as a social object is what I see as the operationalized values that function to united people together. By "operational values" I mean those values that are actually utilized in the operations of an organization. Values function to strengthen, support, guide and protect relationships within a social context.

What functions of the organizational structure are strengthened or empowered by values? There are three human interaction functions that are enriched by values. Those functions are communication in all its forms, decision-making and its implementation, and evaluation of both people and company performance.  When values are utilized in an operational sense, they shift from being abstract, not very practical ideas to practical beliefs that open up avenues of learning and discovery for meeting company goals.

A social object, according to Hugh, could be anything. These objects are points of affinity that people share. It could be the Red Sox, or Scottish Nationalism. The stronger the affinity, the deeper the values are.  For example, it is one thing to say you follow the Red Sox, and another to say that you are a citizen of Red Sox Nation.  It is one thing to say that you are of Scottish heritage and another to be a vocal advocate for Scottish Independence. Social objects function to identify a shared affinity between people.  They can be shallow or deeply personal. They serve the same purpose of connecting people to one another. The stronger the affinity, the greater potential for the values to impact the relationship.

Social objects are a connecting point. The values deepen and give purpose to the relationship beyond the occasion.  What this leads to is the importance for organizations to hire people who connect with the values of the company.  The relationship starts with the social object - an introduction to one another- and deepens as values are identified.  The relationship finds vitality and sustainability as purpose and vision develop. From this development, smart leaders will adapt their organizational structures to support the strengthening of the company's social environment.  This is partly what I mean by operationalizing values.  Therefore, it is important that businesses understand what their values are. Not the abstract, boilerplate ideas of P.R. materials, but rather the beliefs and attitudes that people have about the company that they share and give them strength and hope.

Values 2.0
We are entering a new era regarding organizational values. It is an analog to the shift that Neville Hobson describes in this video. He says that the web has shifted. It used to be that websites were "read only ... (and now, we're) seeing a shift to read - write. You can read and write." The same shift is taking place on the values front.

Values 1.O are values as boilerplate ideas that serve some abstract function. They represent some detached idea that does not empower or strengthen. Values 2.0 are the ideas that give people reason to unite around a share purpose of who they are and what their company stands for.  They can be distinguished in this way.

Values 1.0 - Ideas - Icon - Irrelevance

Values 2.0 - Ideas - Interaction - Integration - Impact

Placed in the context of the three dimensions of leadership, values serve an important role, just as do a clear mission, a compelling vision and a healthy organizational structure.Missionvaluesvisionideasthatconnect

Values matter at the most basic point of human interaction.  Values increasingly matter in a business climate that requires greater people interaction skills to meet the complex demands.  Values are not pablum. They are the super-glue on steroids that unite people together for the work they must do.

The heart of Values 2.0 is action and human interaction. We are not talking about lovely sentimental ideas that are printed on posters and hung on the back of office doors. We are talking about the ideas of substance that support and guide people in their interactions.

For example, trust is a much discussed value in business today. Bookstore shelves are full of books about trust and ethics in business. However, just believing that trust is important is not the same thing as being trustworthy. Valuing trust is not the same as being trustworthy. What does it mean to be worthy of trust? What are people entrusting to one another and their companies? Aren't so many approaches to trust nowadays reactive, defensive approaches to the idea?  Are not most treatments of trust about how to stay out of trouble?  Is staying out of trouble the same thing as being trustworthy? I don't think so. Trust is an active ingredient in human relationships. Without it unity and commitment to shared goals is not sustainable.

If Values 2.0 is similar in character to Web 2.0, then an ongoing discussion about how to operationalize trust needs to begin in organizations. How does trust fit into your communication methodologies and products? Is it possible to be honest and not violate confidences?  What role does trust have in decision-making and evaluation? If trust matters, then it is worth talking about, organizing and measuring. I don't believe there is a formula to this. Values that are utilized in an organizational context are arrived at by conversation and practice.

Hugh MacLeod's simple, yet brilliant idea of social objects provides us a way to understand the role that values have in relationships. Watch this short video of him describing the idea. Place those social encounters in a business context, and you begin to see how quickly we can be talking about values and their integration into business processes.

How do we make this shift from Values 1.0 to Values 2.0?  Let's talk about it and see what we can learn together.

UPDATE: I've put together an one page conversation guide on Values 2.0. It follows the line of thought of Idea - Interaction - Integration - Impact. You can access the chart any time at the Impact Leadership list in the top right column.