When social doesn’t mean sociable
29th May 09
Social networking, social media, the social web-some of the most frequently used phrases of the moment but how often do we stop and think about what “social” really means?
One of the easiest (and laziest) answers seems to be that it’s about making friends-being sociable. But it’s interesting to note that while “social” does derive from the Latin “socius” (meaning friend) it does so via “socialis” meaning allied. Somehow enabling allies and allegiances seems like a much bigger and more transformative idea than simply socialising.
Some of the most interesting social sites at the moment actually seem to me to have very little to do with friending people, or poking people, or checking out their holiday pictures. The most interesting initiatives seem to be those that bring individuals together around a common purpose, enabling them to achieve things together previously only possible for major corporations. Ideas that allow individuals not simply to friend one another but to be useful to one another-that cut out the corporate world or conventional distribution mechanics and create a consumer to consumer value exchange.
As Jyri Engestrom puts it in his excellent post on “object-centred sociality”: “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”
I recently attended the inaugural IPA “Game Changers” event where among other great speakers Giles Andrews from Zopa inspired the crowd by explaining the genuinely radical thinking behind “the social lending company”. For those who aren’t familiar with the proposition, Zopa is a service that puts individual borrowers directly in touch with individual lenders. It not only offers a welcome stream of credit in these increasingly crunched times, it also offers a win-win by offering compelling rates for both parties.
This is a genuinely transformative piece of thinking that uses the fundamental characteristics of the social web-the ability to bring individuals together for their common good, the ability to start conversations-but has relatively limited interest in the sociable web. Concepts like Freecycle, couchsurfing or quirky work along similar lines: I don’t need to be intimate with other users to be of use to them, collaborate with them, fund them, enable them.
Perhaps the most interesting point this raises is that the future of the social web may be driven not so much by friendship but by a new kind of trust. Trust in individuals versus institutions. Trust in people I don’t know (that I’m not friends with) but who I instinctively prefer to the plc and who are brought to me by editor and enabler brands I believe in. As crumbling faith in institutions meets technologies that can genuinely empower both the individual and the crowd, the possibilities are endless (and a little scary). The future of the social web may in fact be less sociable, more (dare I say it) socialist….
So what does this mean for the corporate world? Well, the end probably isn’t nigh just yet. Deriving real utility from social media requires an investment from the individual-in terms of time and in terms of reciprocity. So it will probably remain for a while the preserve of the digitally savvy and time rich. But it may be time to start thinking now about which other services that could previously only be delivered by the might of the corporates that may be socialised next. If lending can be socialised, what’s next? Venture capital? Real estate? What are we already doing on a micro-social scale that could go macro? What else can we congregate around to our mutual benefit? Would be fascinated to know your thoughts….