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.

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