making catalysts – the roots of social media and network building

Getting Oriented

I have been wanting to write a post about the social media work we are beginning at Tonner Doll Company ever since a discussion began with this post, a different kind of Social Media – finding a language. There several interested others and I started sketching out what is necessary if we wanted to openly blog about social media strategy and tactics such that the honor of customers was preserved, so as to bring social media professionals and lay persons into a single possible engagement. What would it mean for social media marketing discussions themselves to be transparent? What would it mean if the way we talked about social media took on the values of social media? It is hard to resist not pursuing such a large idea, so part of this post is set in that direction.

The other portion of what I’d like to talk about grew out of Ric Dragon’s growing series of posts thinking about the nature of “groups” in online communities, the latest of which is Groups, Teams, and Communities in Online Marketing. Something of this series grew out of our initial blog post discussion it seems, but it is focused on a kind of sociological/anthropological understanding of online behavior, mapped from interesting existing models, all with an aim towards practical strategies in social media. Engaging with Ric just as I’ve begun building social media strategy, laying the foundations for Tonner Doll, caused me to focus on essential features of what makes social media work, and how groups are made. Hopefully I can tie the two threads together.

Beginning Strategy

Two weeks ago I was hired as Director of Social Media for the Tonner Doll Company in Kingston NY. The company has been undergoing a deep transformation on several levels for some time, from product line development to a much-needed full website redesign due to be launched in the Fall. The opportunity to work with a small company with a deep pre-internet history, yet with such impassioned and devoted fans, and an iconic artistic voice is a social media dream. In many ways the Tonner Doll Company culturally finds itself in the place that a lot of businesses do, an internal marketing awareness not geared towards the speed and complexity of the social media environment. Yet spiritually, they are in full embrace of the change. Tonner Doll is leaping both feet into social media knowing that this is the one place for demographic growth, and it is a blessing to be a part of that. The additional very compelling aspect of this is that Tonner Doll has something many businesses would sacrifice an arm for: an extremely devoted, enthusiastic and creative-minded fan base, collectors that in many ways embody everything that Tonner Doll is all about. Robert Tonner who is the artist and designer of Tonner dolls is perhaps a collector first. Tonner Doll, and its highest-quality figures,  in a beautiful way expresses as a company the very customers who purchase from them.  There is a symbiosis of art, imagination, curation and commerce that is very rare, though perhaps ideal, in the Tonner Doll Company its dolls and the fans.

Social Media Foundations

I wrote not long ago a post on how blogging is voice gifting. The point was that when we blog we are changing the status of people (and ourselves) though several often overlooked “gifts”, the way that the very space of a blog is itself a space of gift exchange. The background to that post was my idea that social media is driven by Gift Economy logic instead of Market Economy logic, and that there is need of a kind of “translation” between the two cultures of business and social media. But I would like to pick up on another aspect of blogging and giving other than social ties and status change.

The first thing we are doing at Tonner Doll – other than the “best practices” training we have been focusing on, like how to triangulate communications and adopt guerrilla-like dexterity to campaigns and media content – is to start identifying voices. As one might imagine one of the best places to find voices is blogs. Tonner Doll has an unusual advantage in this though, in that a great deal of an impassioned community already visits their Facebook page and shares inspired creative content; but we are looking for blog voices because there is something about blog investment that tends towards the substantial. It gives anchorage to both thought and community and this happens to be something that Google has come to realize and reward in the last year. If Google stopped rewarding blogs, I would still be focusing on them just the same, because I believe in blogs. Blogging is the very nerve center of social media, and the social media explosion would never have gotten off the ground without the real move of content from established institutions of press to there. Google was just a little late to the game.

Where the Game Turns

The usual approach is to find the “mavens” –  that is often bloggers that already make up the substantive community voice of the Doll and Figure movement. These would be people you want to build relationships with. As it happens blogging is not where most of this community lives and communicates. It lives in forums, groups, or on Facebook (our page), or Flickr as we are finding out, to name a few. But I don’t want to just find mavens or connectors. Real social media is not just hub-hunting in order to increase network. It is about producing changes in people’s lives, no matter their place in the network, such the then entire network becomes enhanced. It is about adopting a Liberation approach to personal expression and creativity, I believe.

As it turns out, the very first hidden person we discovered – by looking at reference links to our new blog – was an amazing person in Mexico city who has a small website selling repaints and hand-crafted furniture for our dolls. The quality of work done by Tonner Doll collectors is quite striking for those not familiar with the world of doll collection and curation. Near museum quality. But Tamara is special, to call her a maven would be to miss something. She not only started a previously unknown to us collector community in Mexico, she happens to be Czech and was on the ground floor of a Tonner collector community in the Czech Republic where she lived previously. In a person, what in network theory would be called a “node” – two different communities span out. In one person Tonner Doll has suddenly changed as a company. This is the secret to social media: Treat each person as if knowing that that person could change your company, because it is true.

As it happens, Tamara did not blog;  she has always meant to, in fact I believe had written some posts never published. She is very busy with a 3 year old boy. She runs a small website and custom doll-resale business. She collects. She is not a discovered blogging voice. This is where I think people miss what is important. Businesses in social media are always looking for where there are already rich connections. They are not looking for opportunities to start building them. Everyone we reach in social media has rich connections, but what social media is about is the transition of everyone you meet from the place they are, to the place they could be. It is about expanding potential.

I don’t want bloggers that we can then influence. I want people who might want to start blogging. I want people to find the place from which what they have to say feels like it has the tools and stage to get said, such that that too spurs creativity. Ultimately, I want bloggers that can influence us. Social media marketing is about transition, not harvesting or mining. It is about expanding the power of the network you are building through the liberation of each “node” person. Whatever you find in social media, raise it up. As it happens, Tamara is now blogging in part perhaps because she realized that her audience is bigger than it was, and the doll world is richer for it. And hopefully she is blogging because we in our blog we shared how great it was to find her.

Not Mavens, Catalysts

There is something about the word “maven” in marketing that seems just off. It captures important concepts, but it seems to get the eye valuing in the wrong way, as if certain people are a “kind” like a species and you are just interested in them. It isn’t like that. It is very gradated, and the way we treat mavens should be the same way we treat people with few connectors. There is an underlying principle which I believe guides us no matter who we engage. I’m going to have to take a detour into a theory about the first moments of Life on earth and organic chemistry to sketch this out. It is important though.

Complexity theorist Stuart Kauffman has an elegant theory about how Life could possibly start out of the primordial soup molecules on Earth – At Home in the Universe. It is that given enough time something called autocatalysis starts to take place. Which is to say the perfectly random interactions between molecules because of their properties can start to have an emergent and dynamic interrelation. If two molecules tend to combine to produce a new molecule this new molecule if in high enough concentration may start this soup tending towards other combinations, which in turn tend to produce this same new molecule. The pattern becomes closed and suddenly entirely random soup starts to emerge with new self-supporting properties. This fundamental catalytic closure is what is at root of social media network building. And at root of social autocatalysis is I believe the primary social values and ethics that govern “this is for you” giving.

The Summation below is taken from the business application of Kauffman’s autocatalytic theory by Brian Coffman. I provide an excerpt at length for anyone who wants to get a grasp at how real chemical beginning-of-life interactions are theorized. To me it is interesting stuff. Hopefully for you too:

read the rest of that post for application of this to business Start up ventures.

Now Think of Twitter

Instead of soup of organic molecules millions of years ago, see the vast space of 140 character limit nodes. There are several directions we can go on this. Ideas of necessary diversity in any topological communication space certainly are in play. But I would like to talk about the very notion of catalysis. What it means for one element to tend to produce a dynamic change in the possibilities of other elements, and how that relates to the social values that govern social media. What I propose is not a strategy of growing your network bigger and bigger, with nodes connecting to more nodes as if volume, or even inter-connectivity (the two called “reach”) was the important factor in success. Instead, whatever network you currently have, no matter how meager, the strategy should be to catalyze it.  That is, start with whatever node is immediately your neighbor and raise it up. Turn that node into something else, something that itself can change the potential of the nodes around it. It isn’t about numbers – that is the old impression thinking of broadcast advertising – it is about transition, finding ways of increasing the potential of everyone your social media comes in contact with. You want to change the internal network dynamics of everyone you can.

I’d like to take an example of autocatalytic-like behavior in Twitter, for illustration. My friend @67tallchris and I came up with an idea of how to train people brand new to twitter. And that was to like dive guides with students of scuba to literally escort them out into the ocean of it, helped along with a hashtag and fundamental Tweetdeck knowledge. If we could group together we could practice best Twitter practices in a real time somewhat controlled environment, and people could learn by doing. What was interesting though was what happened the first time we went out on our little excursion. We actually were discussing what would be a good hashtag to use, and our good friend Jacqui @GoSocialSA overheard and proposed #twaining, not realizing that our entire experiment was about to ensue. Adopting the tag suddenly Jacqui found herself in the middle of a #twaining session, escorting two relative newbies through the space of Twitter. Suddenly she was a guide with us. This was made of nothing. All that produced this closure was the grammar of hashtag use in Twitter, the capabilities of Tweetdeck, the practices we began teaching these two Twitter students, and the history of our goodwill relationships between Chris, myself and Jacqui…and the Twitter soup. Chris and my leadership actions, and the interactions of the “students” suddenly catalyzed Jacqui into a leader, and as the small school of us fish swam along, people started noticing and being pulled towards the recursive closure. The instructor/student roles had begun to draw upon the diversity of the soup of Twitter. It was over before anything more would develop, but there was for me a very strong sense that a new thing had happened in Twitter, something with emergent properties, and that there was an autocatalytic element to how it was starting to spread, not just to Jacqui, but to lurkers.

What I suspect, and what I strongly encourage, is that it is from the intent to empower others, give to others socially, that social catalytic growth occurs. The story of simple molecules when it is analogized to social networks becomes a story of liberation. When I empower my neighbor in a Gift Economy culture I have given them the power catalyze someone else, change the dynamic of what is possible. So going back to Tamara who is now blogging her passion. What has changed there? What changes as Tonner Doll takes on a message that doll collectors should start beginning to blog? What chemistry is beginning? Is it not that the entire loose network is becoming enriched? Not just be node numbers, or connectivity numbers (yes, that t0o), but by qualitative differences, the way that each person now values what they are contributing, and power with which others can be transitioned.

There are best practices, ways of bringing out what is best in others. There are ways of gifting voice and space to those that need it. And there is something to social media that makes of these practices the very stuff of network building. It is not just about content sharing, but rather changing the capacity for the network itself to share. And this takes a giving and personal touch, the ability to feel when others have been raised up.

A catalytic view involves asking the question, What exactly is it that you or others make possible?… Instead of the questions: Whom are you connected to, and whom can you connect me to?

addendum:  This post also owes its debt to the brief #usguys conversation between @ricdragon, @josepf, @67tallchris and myself (among possibly others) on Dunbar’s number, the limitation of maintainable relationships to 150 persons, and what this means for social media.


24 thoughts on “making catalysts – the roots of social media and network building

  1. Funny, I was playing around with an online version of John Conway’s “Game of Life”, ( where elements would be static, die, or give “birth” to new elements – all based on some simple rules. It seems to be related to your thinking around autocatalysis, and also brings to mind emergence theory. Just imagine if one day our social media marketing activities got to a point where we could model out interactions!

    Congratulations on your new post (meaning job, not blog) – I recall your saying you would be in our neighborhood more often, but didn’t know that reason. I should be able to lean out my window and wave. But if you go trying to steal my Foursquare mayoralty at the coffee shop, it could get rough on Wall Street.

    I also recall your mentioning the notion of transparency in social media marketing from a few weeks back – where in social media work, to be open with client’s constituents about what the purpose of the social media. I think it’s a good idea, and look forward to seeing what you do with it. If you’re able to wrangle up some examples, it sure could make for a good blog post in and of itself.

    I like what you have to say about mavens, too – that in our social media marketing work, we shouldn’t just seek out the existing influencers – but those that could be influential as well. I only wonder about the feasibility of that, vis-à-vis bandwidth. Of course, with Tonner, there is already such an established community that is probably partially offline – so identifying those offline people and engaging them makes a lot of sense. For most of our clients, existing influencers (in an interest area) would make for a more reasonable focus.

    It was in our first Twitter exchanges that we discovered our mutual interest in gifting. I’ve got my Marcel Mauss nearby, ready for a re-read. I’ve also been thinking a lot about the power of both asking for help, and being asked for help.- how both of those actions incite something within us. And that, too, gets back to the chemistry.

    • Ric,

      I was definitely thinking about the Game of Life when writing. In fact I’m strongly suspecting that Game of Life or the Autocatalysis theory have had some influence upon each other (not knowing which one came first). I think this post came out of my desire to go deeper than the taxonomies you have been investigating. I think it was also spurred by our talk of Dunbar’s number and what that might mean for social media strategy. If we are in a Game of Life of Twitter, or Facebook, etc, are there fundamental principles of action that transcend the game? I sense that there are.

      As for the analogies and lessons to be taken from Tonner, I’m not sure that offline communities or engagements are core here (the exception). There is very strong Facebook interaction that could be read as ideal to social media itself, and most of these people are not engaged in RL communities (that I know of). In fact what is interesting about Tonner communities is how they are artistically driven, and have thrived on media sharing (photos), without developing a sophisticated network of communication outreach. It is precisely these kinds of islanded communities that other businesses should seek out to link and liberate, I would pose.

      I agree that existing influencers should make up a company focus. In fact of course this is the case for us. But it is a question of emphasis and direction. Instead of looking for influencers to influence (the usual SMM scheme), look for influencers to catalyze. That is, how can I expand the potential of this influencer (the same question applying to anyone we encounter)? For instance I found a wonderful lady who does a “geek” podcast on subjects that are not especially germane to immediate Tonner interests. My thought is not: How can we influence this person in our favor? My thought is: This podcast is really buried on the internet. How can they possibly have more exposure, better ease of access? Who knows if I can help, but the truth is that our network would be enriched, catalyzed, if we do end up helping much more than if we ended up “influencing”.

      I thought you would find the link to autocatalysis and venture start up interesting: mostly because it sketches out some of the the principles you discuss in terms of diversity.

      And please let me know about how you experience Mauss on re-read. I find him very hard to read actually. But love the principles and the social media application.

      Very happy to be across the street from you! Ah, the whimsey of social media that you are I share a street. No worries about your mayor-ship, that coffee house is way out of my league, though I love it.

  2. Kevin, this is an amazing, awesome post! To be a catalyst for new thought and change based on mutual giving is a terrific thing and not to be taken lightly. You’re concepts for imparting knowledge on social media “twaining” is original and could prove helpful to many! I congratulate you on your new job and must say they are fortunate to have you! You will build new and foster current alliances with the ease of someone who is not considering himself first, nor self-conscious. I plan to learn from you as you blog and share and will assist in any way I can! Best of luck, though you hardly need it!

    • Libby, that is a very generous comment. I am moved. I’m very happy to be sharing the Twitterverse with you, and now the blogosphere as well. As for the new position, I believe we are mutually fortunately. It is a company and people that I believe in, and I am grateful for the opportunity to offer them what ever my perspective can show. To me we all walk together, without lapsing into cliche. I think social media teaches that.

  3. Kevin,

    I’m really just a slime mold:

    On the topic of autocatalysis, yes, the theory hold and applies to Social Media, however in orders of complexity that I suspect we do not have the inherent ability to understand. In his book, Where Good Ideas Come From, Steven Johnson discusses the concept of the Adjacent Possible. Basically, as we progressed from the primordial soup we did so in such a way that each set of new creations lead to NOW possible other creations. He goes so far as to say that it is not possible to create or invent past the Adjacent Possibilities. I mention this because Social Media itself creates, allows for new space, new adjacent possibles. Yes, we are biologically limited, however, we are also tool makers who have found out how to create remarkable efficiencies and leverage on our biological powers. Tweetdeck, for example, literally lets me see more, process faster, track more simultaneous conversations. It allows me to ‘see’ and participate in more Nodal communities.

    ONCE the tools advance (per my requests 🙂 ) and fold in higher order CRM functionality, where I can get additional reminders on names, hobbies, family, last series of interactions between us, and keyword search, filter, categorize someone’s streams into quick snapshots of relevance? Think an Intelligent… I’ve been counting…. Tracking the dynamic and stable relationships… It will be interesting to see if the technologies in which we play act as their own autocatalysis, and allow us to effectively break or bend Dunbars number. (I already know they will 🙂

    best regards,


    • Thanks for your thoughts here Josepf and your slime mold vid – I love the topic of Slime mold intelligence.

      And I am beginning to see the prosthetic CRM capabilities you are reaching for. In fact Tweetdeck alone allows me to cross certain human thresholds and create diversity in my network that otherwise could never be. How else could I watch people who love philosophy, Muay Thai, poetry and Cattle dogs all at the same time, and leap across those interests/columns, and try to cross pollinate them.

      And I do love your futurist notion of technologies acting in their own autocatalysis relations. In fact if you look at Stuart Kauffman’s book he examines technology change in a way that actually suggests this is very much the case. He talks about how the automobile transformed society in ways we often don’t think about. The automobile, like the internet, was and is a tremendous social catalyst.

      Cool reference to Steven Johnson, sounds like a book I should really read, after I am done with my maze:

  4. I don’t have a comment, I have a meta-comment.

    Kevin, I am finding your work extremely provocative in a way that I’m still somewhat inarticulate about. The self-organizing rich possibilities afforded by autocatalysis and autocatalyzing systems, autopoiesis, your previous work on conjoined semiosis, the thoughts branching from voice-gifting back through to artificial reefs… it is all of a theme, the internal life of self-organization.

    My inarticulateness is fascinating to me, because I know these ideas are just-adjacent (the adjacent possible) to these are ideas that fluently interpenetrate my own work. I think it’s because I have black-boxed self-organizing systems. I’ve recognized them when I’ve seen them, but I’ve never thought fruitfully about how they arise, what their internal structure is, how we can foster them. (This is also meta-fascinating to me given the contrast to my challenging the way classical economics black-boxes customers’ purchasing motivations, in my comment on your first post in this discussion, on the need for a new language for social media.) It fascinates me, both for the mechanism of black-boxing (what do we choose to see, what do we choose to let remain hidden), and because how are these two things really different in the first place? The energy-investments and current-cy dynamics within the “private” domain of a customer’s heart, mind and family, and the energy-investments and currency dynamics within the “public” domain — why is that boundary so persistent?

    Of course there are hundreds of years of culturally gendered reasons for why that’s a sticky boundary, reasons perpetuated in my original choice of psychology as a discipline. I don’t mean to be disingenuous about that personal and cultural history. But it is freshly fascinating to me in a whole new way. This is also the context of a remark I made to you on Twitter, Kevin, about how this is making me think about brick-and-mortar businesses differently. I am at home in the context of online-tribe based service businesses, it is the context I have been working towards and grounded in for years. That context feels private to me, given the way its emotional salience and resonance functions. It feels feminine, and most of my online community in that world are women. The use of social media in that space is what I am most familiar with, have been actively participating in for years, and SM functions in that world very much in the way this rolling discussion has been describing — intimate, gift-economy-based, transparent. It is from that base, that I have been participating in this discussion.

    But many of y’all, including Kevin with Tonner Doll, are looking specifically at (what feels to me like) the public domain of business. Why should selling tangible goods as opposed to selling intangible services feel so different to me? Why should I struggle for what to contribute to the conversation, once we actually enter inside the black box of how these spaces function, for the purposes of fostering artificial reefs to help them grow? This isn’t truly a different domain.

    I don’t know. I still need to ferment these ideas some more.

    • Karen,

      Can you expand on how you are seeing brick and mortar businesses differently? What is the theme that is building up there? And how do instinctively feel there to be a difference between selling services and products? Is it to you that selling cars and selling legal representation are different kinds of things?

      As for the black box of self-organizing systems, I think Josepf above said it right, that there are orders of complexity that make it very hard to track out all the consequences of our actions. But for that reasons there are lot of tried and true best practices (called ethics) that perhaps stand in for exactly how the black box works, a way of being able to generate cohesion and communication without seeing all the gear workings. This being said, I think that the black box is being opened, and that perhaps social media with its limited grammars of interaction is helping show what is really going on in group formation. Something like Twitter seems to have very rough parallel to what Ric cites, The Game of Life, with its restriction of kinds of actions. We can just about glimpse how these groups are being formed, persist and die.

      Also coming to mind is a graph I did not include in the body of this post, but it is interesting:

      Look at the x-axis: probability that any molecule will catalyze any other. This has a very strong social component in SoMe, guided by all the ethical and inspiration values that make social media thrive. When we instill the values of social media, when we forward them, we increase the probability of catalysis. When we don’t we retard the process (one of my problems with scheduled tweeting or self-promotion). Twitter seems a far more positive platform for any other, where mutual support seems to have become the language of the land. This “hallmark” quality (I believe Ric Dragon once called it) actually creates the real possibility for self-organization, lowering the need for diversity (y-axis). Put the two together and it hits a sweet spot. I think there is an upper limit here that the graph does not represent though.

      So if we are going to open the black box of social media self-organization, it seems that beneficence is strongly linked to “this is for you” maven thinking. It increases the potential of your entire network. But of course it goes much deeper than this. The social rules of thumb are great, but we then can look into exactly what processes (or persons) are catalyzing what processes (or persons). If for instance we are helping impassioned people to start to blog, or start to Tweet, what does this new platform activity actively tend to promote. A social media marketing standard for me is always: What is the new place? What is the next possibility for this person, or this segment. What is it was want help foster. I don’t think you can do that without opening up the black box to some degree.

      As usual I really love your thoughts Karen, and look forward to more.

  5. Kevin,

    You hit on the very thing that first excited me about social media. Recognizing the customer as (potentially) a partner in making a product or providing a service. I know you and I love tweetdeck, and just imagine if twitter came to us, asking us what features we would like to see in an update version, or what problems we were experiencing. Because of twitter chats and hashtags like #usguys, they could easily poll tons of power users, and get instant feedback on their initiatives.

    I also like the idea of a company being a catalyst by empowering their customers and fans, by trying to help them find/develop their own voice, and thereby creating an environment where other catalysts are created (autocatalyst in my own words). This was my favorite part in the whole post:

    “I don’t want bloggers that we can then influence. I want people who might want to start blogging. I want people to find the place from which what they have to say feels like it has the tools and stage to get said, such that that too spurs creativity. Ultimately, I want bloggers that can influence us. Social media marketing is about transition, not harvesting or mining. It is about expanding the power of the network you are building through the liberation of each “node” person.”

    If a person that comes to you, asking questions about blogging, looking to Tonner as an example of something they want to start themselves (blogging in general, or the open transparency of the process etc..) the best way to show that you are not just doing it because you are self interested, tit-for-tat, or expect them to immediately rave about you in return for your help, is to help someone who you know can not repay you in kind. They do not have the influence you are looking for, or have a long way to go before they really develop their voice.

    As you said to me “the best gifts are those you can’t repay”. That is the gift I think you are trying to give people who come into contact with Tonner Doll, but not simply for altruistic motivation, but because it will create an autocatalyst environment where other people will be raised up that will want to talk about Tonner Doll, because that is what they are passionate about, and for their own motivation.

    Howard Schultz put it this way, (paraphrazing) “You can buy peoples (employees) time, but you can’t buy their hearts”. For a long time after reading his book “Pour Your Heart Into It” he had my heart soul working at Starbucks. Then, as the company changed, I had less and less buy in with where the company was going, and what they were doing. But Starbucks, back in the day, was a magical place of community (in my mind, and at the stores I worked at). Ever since, I have wanted to learn about community, and how to recreate what I initially felt at Starbucks, in an online environment. I felt that in #usguys for a long time, but again, that has changed, and I have gotten busy.

    But no longer am I content looking for the next community to be a part of. I want to be the catalyst that helps foster it, and be the catalyst that creates autocatalysts (or more accurately, helps others discover those traits within themselves, and helps to bring out their voice). I think that is what you are trying to find out also.

    • Chris,

      I honestly believe if we at Tonner Doll just help people to find voice, and to be able to act and connect with like-minded others, the whole “marketing” thing will take care of itself. I also don’t believe that this is an ulterior motive, just being nice to get something. It comes down to the soul or spirit of a business, what was it that inspired its creation? What was that spark? And how do we keep it alive? At Tonner Doll we are really fortunate in that the company is the full expression of an inspired collector and designer. The high-quality figures and dolls (and they run upwards near $200) are meant to be played with, or better, imagined with, center pieces of art so to speak. So one of the mottos “Believe in the power of play” isn’t just a marketing tag line, it goes to the entire reason for the company, and its customers. Helping others connect or voice themselves is very natural to this entire process.

      Even though Tonner seems unique in this, I have to say that I believe this same confluence exists in nearly every (legitimate) business. There is a spark, a reason for its existence, and due to the nature of commerce this has to do with the empowerment of the customer in some mode or sense. This essential spark (something the company felt and something that customers can feel) is connectable to social media freedoms. We would have to look at it business by business, but the entire social media marketing idea is business is essentially is “social”. It is a social act to buy something from somebody.

      I remember when living in Chiang Mai Thailand for a month when Sylvie was training there. It was a little street lined with little carts, up and down, from which you could buy food. Our first two weeks there we were always stopping at a cart that sold fresh pineapple just outside our residence (with chili flakes and salt, delicious!). At least once a day, sometimes twice we would take a moment purchase from a very sweet older lady, whose smile was always so Thai warm. After a couple of weeks without much thought about it we grew tired of pineapple so we stopped purchasing from her just purchased other wonderful things from other carts up and down our lane – there must have been 30 or so. As Americans we thought nothing of it. We wanted something else, variety, and if nothing else it was a paradise of market variety. We noticed something though. We had deeply offended our pineapple cart lady whom we had already grown quietly fond of. She had come to take our loyalty as a social bond. She would not look at us when we passed by any more, and when we returned to our pineapple passion a little later, she no longer had that smile for us. The Thai social bonds of course are not ours – and we accidentally transgressed them – but it taught me something. Buying something is a social act. In the West it is something that we naturally suppress. We have very little awareness of it, but it is there, even in something as “impersonal” as We socially invest in companies, persons/workers, brands when we financially invest. That is why simply helping someone have more empowerment, catalyzing your network, is necessarily BOTH a social and a commercial act. They are not separable, I believe. And for that reason you are not doing one for the result of the other. It is a co-investment on both ends.

      • I think there’s something really important that you’ve pinpointed in your pineapple-vendor’s disappointment in you. These are reciprocal bonds we are building. I don’t know the social expectations of Thai culture, but I suspect that it might have been possible to stop by, and chat with her (or perhaps, given language boundaries, just smile and engage in other ways) without buying pineapple, and still maintain the warm connection.

        Of course we run into a Dunbar-like capacity problem again. If you had to stop and socialize with every single vendor on that street, you’d never do anything else. It’s a problem, and as our world gets more complex it becomes a bigger problem.

        But I think it points to something important about what needs to happen in modern-business use of social media, for it to be capable of the task it ought to do. Which is that the businesses must need social media too. Not in a tit-for-tat, give-only-to-get kind of way. There must be as strong of a socially-constructed expectation of implicit reciprocity on the part of the business, as there was for your pineapple-vendor, before customers will really trust the business’s SM voice, and before you get the real catalyzing effect (with its consequent impact on ROI) that businesses hope for. In fact, I’d suspect that the more businesses have that implicit expectation of reciprocity, of “we” that crosses the producer-consumer boundary, the better social media works for them, including in a direct ROI way. Chris’s example of Starbucks is a perfect case in point.

        • This was the interesting thing about the pineapple vendor – and again, no expert on Thai culture, but do have some sense – she was right outside our residence so we saw her all the time. There was no way to really chat because nobody spoke English, but we definitely offered her our smile and acknowledgment each time we passed because we had grown fond of her. I think in Thai society purchase can mean investment in a family, an explicit (and assumed regular) support of a family’s income, their sustenance. It is necessarily socially imbued, how could it not be. You are a friend of the family so to speak. No amount of social extension can replace actually commerce. The commerce IS the social, in many ways. I think it would make no sense to chat nicely with someone and then not make even a small purchase…very thought provoking.

          We’ve lost this to some degree in the abstraction of the marketplace. No longer do purchases feel like the touch anyone’s lives, except in the case of boycotts or social action purchasing. The very small town intimacy between a purchase and a social gift has dissolved. But I think that the entire bonding, the social fabric of the purchasing action is still fully in place. It is for that reason that we grow upset when a company does not “stand by” their product and our invested loyalty. It is for that reason that when a product is spectacularly designed we feel we have been given a kind of “gift”. The social – despite our market abstractions – is imbued in the commercial. And one of the nice things, one of the most interesting things, is how social media is starting to bring that back into the forefront.

          As always, I love your comments Karen. Great food for thought.

          • “The commerce IS the social” yes. I think probably you are right, when you say it would make no sense to chat with someone in that traditional kind of a structure, and not make even a small purchase. It now seems to me it would be like the vacuousness of making a big obvious point to smile at a homeless person to “acknowledge their humanity” but not even give them a quarter. How arrogant-ugly-American it might have seemed to her.

          • Karen, It has something to do with the Western deep emphasis on variety and the (illusions) of choice and freedom. It is incomprehensible sometimes that we are simply affecting people with our endless freedoms to choose. I do think you hit the nail with the homeless man example. Traditional societies of course have their very deep limitations, we should not idealize them. But they do also contain many of the important values that we should work to preserve, if we can. And in this case, this pineapple lady taught me something about how commerce still is. It still is fundamentally social. The social is what powers and binds it. It is just that our eye is often keep on other aspects of commerce, notions of hard value, or personal satisfaction. The social dimension is often suppressed, though working all along.

            And yes, despite how much she stays with me and my wife, as we think of her, we were likely arrogant and unseemly to her, beyond our intentions.

    • The gift that cannot be repaid is really important, because leads to giving the gift onward. It recirculates the current-cy of the energetic-value of the gift. Transactional economies stop at each transaction, and each new transaction needs another quantum of energy to make it happen. There’s no momentum of catalyzing energy that makes the next transaction a little easier, a little more fluid. Gift economies keep the ball in the air. They keep the quantum of energy moving, so the same quantum of energy (e.g., the single action Tonner does that creates the opportunity for multiple others to create, or the one-time work done at Starbucks to create a culture which could be repeated multiple times in different stores) can do more work.

      • I like how you think about this in terms of energy and flow. There is a wonderful Russian filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky who is very influential to my conception of media (and art). He spoke of his vision of how editing works in film. He compared scene length to the diameter of pipes through which water flowed. You connect them kin-esthetically, creating changes in pressure or speed. If you watch any of his incredible films you can see what he is doing.

        I think multi-platform social media works like this too. It is not just that there are a bunch of people connected in a bunch of different ways. It is that content and energy flows at different rates, with different degrees of intensity – one of the things that makes a blog/twitter connection so intriguing perhaps. So I think in the transaction sense is it right to think of energy and flow, but within each social medium and group as well there are real differences. This is something I feel a lot of people in SMM simply do not pay enough attention to.There are times you want to slow it down, deepen it. There are times you want to speed it up, make it thin, ice-skate it. And they should be coordinated.

        A Memorable Tarkovsky edit

  6. Pingback: commerice is necessarily social – micro post « Social Media Notes

  7. Kevin, this post really strikes a chord on so many levels. And as usual, everyone has offered deep, thoughtful commentary that serves only to enrich and stretch our thinking. For me (at the risk of oversimplifying and sounding cliched) it may be summed up as: ”Changing the world, one conversation at a time”.

  8. The idea of empowering others within your social network in such a way that they become a whole new level of influence in themselves is certainly new in Social Media. It may not be new in other areas of life, but the way you bring them into play here is certainly innovative. For someone new and learning the ways of the Social Media world, your decision to be more transparent and open about your strategies and ideas is very welcome. Most of what I find online is vague and confusing. I suppose the plan to empower the “nodes” and bring them into the discussion and influence is connected to the transparency you talked about. Helping people understand the what, why, where, who, when and how of your strategies will foster the much valued and needed feelings of responsibility and trust.

    Wish you best of luck with your venture.

  9. Kevin, I love, love, love your emphasis on the catalyst. Maven’s can generate volume but not new, substantive contributions, not critical development that adds to quality of a community.

    The time invested in finding and empowering creative people and thought leaders can have a much higher Return on Effort than just focusing on the “buzz,” particularly over the long term. Isn’t this the ethos of new thinking on innovation? Open up and create a culture for better solicitation of input and ideas from everywhere, anyone. We will find awesomeness in unexpected places, new places and the community will tell us what they want.

    Lovely crystallization of what is necessarily shifting with the support of social media infrastructure. I am richer for it!!

    • Thanks for your very kind thoughts Allison. The best is when two parties catalyze each other, making each better and more capable of acting and thinking. I love what you bring to my thought processes each time we discuss issues at hand. Yes, it seems that this is the gold for which many are turning into paper. I agree, there is something to be had with impression reach, it is an important part of getting your message out. But don’t let it limit what really is possible in these media, to come into a contact with real decision changers.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s