Home > Social Design, Social Web > Defining Requirements for Social Web Applications – Part 3: Social Objects

Defining Requirements for Social Web Applications – Part 3: Social Objects

This is the 3rd post in a series on Defining Requirements for Social Web Applications. As with the other posts in this series, the content is largely borrowed from Joshua Porter’s book Designing for the Social Web. Porter’s book is a gem, and if the topic of social web design is of interest to you, I highly recommend you pick up a copy.

Click on the following links to access previous posts in this series:


“Social object” is a term founded by sociologist and Jaiku foun­der, Jyri Enges­trom. Engestrom is currently a product manager at Google. Engestrom coined the term “social object” in this blog post in 2005, and it since become a core concept in social website design. I’ve blogged previously on Engestrom and social objects here, which includes a link to a presentation given by Engestrom at Web 2.0 Expo 2009 in San Francisco.

So what is a Social Object?

“Social Objects” are the things in this world that we share in the context of our social experiences. More specifically, a social object is some “thing” we share with others as part of our social media experience on the social web.

If you look around at the dominant Web 2.0-styles websites – YouTube, Flicker, Yelp, Wikipedia, Netflix, Digg, Amazon, Slideshare, etc. – each site facilitates social experience around some particular social object. Here’s a nice visual from Porter’s book that lists some of the Web’s most successful applications, and their associated social objects.

Social Objects

Social objects, says Porter, are often overlooked in the attention given to Social Networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter. He quotes Jyri Engestrom from a 2005 blog post on the topic:

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.”

Identify your Social Objects

So the next step is to identify the key Social Objects in your social application – photos, listings, news stories, products, or even knowledge itself, as in the case of Wikipedia.

Give Social Objects a URL

This is somewhat more of a design concern that a functional requirement of the application, but each individual instance of a social object should be represented by a unique , user-friendly URL. Porter lists the following reasons for given each object a URL:

  • URL’s make object shareable
  • URL’s make objects easier to find and re-find
  • URL’s allow people to link to an object directly
  • Search engines like URLs

So now that you’ve identified the core social objects in your application, it’s time to identify the core features that your application must support. This will be the topic of the next post.


Also in this series

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