Are Design Icons Close to Proto-Language Use?

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Anchorage and Compass

In reading Reading In The Brain I can’t really get myself away from the feeling that I’m learning important perceptual and experiential truths that involve digital design when the author discusses how the brain divides up the workload of decoding written inscription, in a “pandemonium” of neuron hierarches. But in this passage above something else occurs to me. Because early art or even writing was not strictly “representational” there is this sense that depiction is more “operational” which is exactly what icons are. I’ve been captured by the design sense that in digital enviroments people often far less aware of where they are and what they should do than we think they are. Designers spend so much time slaving over minutia of a page, little aesthetics here and little asethetics there, it never occurs to them that people won’t know where the profile or contact button is. I put it over “there” it is obvious.

The first thing that faces a new user is orientation. Where am I? Am I in the right place? How do I move around? These things need to be very clear, and made clear very fast, even for experienced internet users. I can’t help but think that the anchoring operators of early cave painting are important lessons here. Icons, navigation, they draw on some of the most powerful dimensions of word magic. And even in sites that are inhabited by familiar, repeat visitors, the power of operator iconography (and calls to action) are things that structure and enable the flow of activity. Compassry is a neglected art in the world of digital design.

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a different kind of Social Media – finding a language

Where Language Leads we Follow

I’ve been considering the clash of cultures that social media marketing brings to the table. There is the community-first, relationship building,  conversation-driven culture of social media itself. And there there is the marketing culture that is conditioned by its roots in advertising with strong tendencies to depersonalize the transaction, to speak in numbers and the control of what is ostensibly assumed to be a deceptive/persuasive message. One taps into our deepest, surest human values (finding friends, sharing, a sense of transparency). The other tends to treat people as quantities or at best mere intentions or desires.

As these two cultures of community and commerce come together in the new form of social media marketing it strikes me that there is a certain challenge that naturally faces us. If social media is about transparency, and we are building business oriented social media groups based on principles of sharing, honesty and openness, social media marketing itself is in need of a language to talk about users and customers in a way that gives honor and respect. If indeed we are going to carry through the mission of social media to a logical extreme, people cannot simply be click-through-rates and cost-per-conversion. They cannot merely be “eyeballs” or impressions. When we talk about the success or the failure of a campaign, the implementation of a marketing strategy, it cannot be how many “sheeple” we caught or failed to pen. It cannot just be funnels, as useful as that analogy might be.

The reason I am thinking about this is not a case of conversion. That is, I am not just an evangelist who has been taken with a new way of thinking about persons and want to apply it everywhere, overturning tried and true truths of advertising practice. It is that it strikes me that there are some untapped and very interesting possibilities within social media marketing itself if our marketing brains can get to the point where we come to understand the process differently. One of these possibilities that is appealing to me is that of being able to talk openly (and analytically) about social media efforts themselves, amongst the business social media community, and harvest the collective wisdom and experience of all of us who are just setting out on what has to be admitted to still be an uncharted sea. And, in order to do this, openly, we must find a language.

When people quibble about words, they really are talking about mindsets, about concepts. But it is good to start at the words and work out because mindsets can be slippery and difficult to grasp at once. You change the words, and you change the concepts, slowly. I began discussing this with my friend Chris Porter @67tallchris. I was thinking about how to blog real time social media strategy as it is being planned and executed. The benefits of this is that my collection of conversation peers all can talk about principles and best practices in a way that actually are being done. A dialogue can develop between shared ideas, held-to principles and real social media actions. It was Chris that helped me realize that largely this is a question of language. In indeed we are to import the real values of social media building into the conversation about social media marketing, the way we talk about our aims and achievements needs to change and grow. If the benefits of social media transparency are going to accrue, gone must be the back-room talk of numbers and percentages alone. I understand vividly the desire to chase and numerify important things like ROI and conversion rates, but I am talking about another thing here. I am talking about crowdsourcing the conversation in two ways. And for that a language and set of concepts is needed.

Building A New Discourse

From my Skype conversation with Chris I moved to an informal Twitter chat on #usguys. Jacqui Kimmel @GoSocialSA and Trish Ableoff @trishabeloff both helped begin thinking about what these words or concepts might be. Where is it that community values and business aims touch, conceptually? What terms that are meaningful and respectful in a community translate well to the kinds of things we are seeking to achieve in social media building – notice, I am moving away from the term social media “marketing” here, already. A few words/concepts came to me on that Twitter discussion. “Satisfaction” is a word that seems to swim in both worlds. Customer satisfaction is a now well established concept – a concept, the Wanamaker origins of which Ric Dragon @RicDragon educated me on in a recent and very satisfying Skype brainstorm. And “satisfaction” seems to map fairly well onto at least the landscape of aims social media experience. It is not quite right, and we still feel that we are on the old marketing side because people generally are not looking for satisfaction per se when the participate in social media. There is something else.

Another term that appeals to me, and I have already been using it for a few months unconsciously, is investment. Investment obviously has its business meaning, but it also has strong sociological and personal meanings. We invest in each other. We invest time in things we care about. Investment seems to be a word that carries its meaning across both worlds. I think it is safe to say, for instance, that in social media management and strategy we want to inspire others to invest in our media, our offers, our services. But even more so, to invest in our community.

So what I’m seeking here is perhaps the concept of co-investment. We in business invest in others. Our customers. Our fans. And they in turn invest in us. Our community. Our offerings. Perhaps if we can talk about social media building as our co-investment, achieving co-investment, we are getting somewhere.

But this is just the beginning of the conversation. If we are going to be able to invent and evolve a different kind of social media, if we are going to create a new language and tool set for thinking out the problems and challenges that are unique to social media building, this is going to take a conversation. In fact several cross-channeled, cross-purposed but still dovetailing conversations.

For the pleasure of it, the etymology of the word investment:

investmentLook up investment at Dictionary.com
1590s, “act of putting on vestments” (a sense now found in investiture); later “act of being invested with an office, right, endowment, etc” (1640s); and “surrounding and besieging of a military target” (1811); commercial sense is from 1610s, originally of the finances of the East India Company; general use is from 1740 in the general sense of “conversion of money to property in hopes of profit,” and by 1837 in the sense “amount of money so invested; property viewed as a vehicle for profit.” For commercial senses, see invest + -ment.