Are objects social?

I tend to disagree with the author that mentioned that it is not about the object but the conversations that happen around it.  Well that depends on if the conversations are about the object itself and not just random conversation.  This is where the metaphor of the campfire breaks down for me.  Although a campfire is an object that draws people in, usually the conversations that happen around a campfire are not about the campfire.  Shared content (the object) is the conversation.  When you post a picture on Flickr, there is an initial message in the picture that you send (a probe you could say), then the subsequent conversations(feedback and probe cycle) that follow as long as the conversation is about the object, in this case, the photo. The act of sharing content is the initial conversation. 

A book club may be a better analogy because the book is the object that the conversation is about and the book creates the conversation.  A study group may be another example. A better analogy might be found in the theory of Communities of practice. Wenger on his website Communities of Practice defines what a community of practice is.  It must include a Domain, A Practice, and A community.  The domain is a shared competence or domain of interest (an object).  A Practice is a group of practitioners developing a shared repository of experiences, tools, stories about the object. A Community are members building relationships, helping each other, and sharing information all around the object.

Martin Weller, in his article  Social Objects in Education mentioned that “the educational value is not the content, but the social interaction it begets.” I disagree. Some objects have an inherent social-ness about them.  I believe that the value lies in conversation that is inherent in the object itself.   

Can educational content, assessments, or assignments be a social object?  Educational content is a very broad topic.  I might ask what kind of education content “begets” social interaction?  Maybe it depends on how complex the object was.  The more complex the object, the more points the object offers for discussion.  Some educational content may offer this and some may not.   I wonder what kind of social objects teachers talk about in the teachers’ lounge. This might offer an interesting answer to the question of “can educational content be a social object?”  I believe that assessments or assignments narrows the field down.  I do think that assessments or assignments can be a social object as long as they are not too specific.  Again they need to offer enough handles for discussion. Assessments can offer how to write them, how to grade them, how to handle reliability and validity, kinds of assessments, alignment with outcomes, etc. 

In my experiences with Blackboard, I have never had a conversation about an assignment or an assessment. Assignments and assessments are posted there but no conversations happen about them and there is very little social interaction around them, at least not on Blackboard.  Blackboard (whether its intended use is like this) is a one way interaction for me. It is also not an open system. Sharing is limited to those in the system. Once you leave the system, you don’t take those conversations with you, nor those social interactions.

I found two articles that helped me understand the concept of social objects better.

Cultural-Historical Activity Theory .Although this article is a little heady, it discussed the generational development of social activity theory. Concepts of Vygotsky and his colleagues created the concept of artifact-mediated and object oriented activity and collectivity activity collectivity activity is driven by objected-oriented motives.  Interesting article as it relates to social objects.

On the Life of an Object. This article is written by 

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One Response to Are objects social?

  1. David Wiley says:

    “A book club may be a better analogy because the book is the object that the conversation is about and the book creates the conversation.” This may indeed be a better metaphor…

    I wonder what you would make of Kirschner’s contention that “there are no off-topic interactions.” Essentially, even what appear to be “off-topic” interactions are either building content knowledge or strengthening social relationships, which will in turn strengthen the learning process by providing positive peer pressure, enhanced collaboration, etc.

    I also found it interesting that you took this in the direction of activity theory. Probably some interesting opportunities for importing analysis techniques from Engestrom etc. for looking at the kinds of activity people engage in around social objects?

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