Technically Fashion Objects: Apple Products as Social Objects

For a little while now, I've thought of apple products as fashion accessories more than gadgets. I think this is intentional and it is brilliant. I've had some trouble expressing why though. Now, thanks to Justin Thorp's steady stream of Social Object links, I have words: by moving your product into the fashion category, you make it useful for self-expression, giving it instant, powerful social object status and allowing it to fulfill a deeply important role in a person's life: you make the product, itself, communicate for the person.

The idea of "social objects" comes from anthropology, where it is part of object-centered sociality. The concept is straightforward enough: people like to socialize, but they don't just do so at random; instead, they socialize over some social object, such as a shared interest, activity, or possession. For example, if I go to the black cat to see Mission of Burma and strike up a conversation with a stranger about how righteous I think Clint Conley's bass work is, the music is our social object. On Facebook, initially at least, your college was the social object. You can read dozens of excellent examples over at gaping void. The idea is elegant -- it is easy to grasp and explains the complex interactions.

Of course, not all social objects are created equal. As Jyri Engestr�xplains in the aforementioned link, "Complex social objects offer a lot of handles for discussion. A movie, for instance, has a cast, a plot, special effects, and plenty of other conversation points that people can talk about." So some objects give us more to talk about than others, which makes intuitive sense. Significantly, though, as Hugh Macleod reminds us, "The final thing to remember is that, Social Objects by themselves don�t matter in the grand scheme of things. ... Human beings matter. Being with other human beings matter. And since the dawn of time until the end of time, we use whatever tools we have at hand to make it happen."

So here's what I'll propose, disclaiming that I need to read more about this to be really insightful: a social object that itself effectively communicates something about you is best of all. This is part of the lure of fashion, of concerts, of art exhibitions -- they are social objects that say something about our personalities. They act as filters on with whom we might socialize, connecting us to people who may have more in common with us -- everyone I've ever met has taste in movies and music, and people can get heated talking about their taste. Because art objects tend to be conceptually rich, they are complex social objects with lots of handles. Fashion is particularly appealing, because you get to have a social object right on your person -- how many pickup lines start with a comment about someone's clothes?

And here's where the money comes in. The beauty of making your product into an art (used loosely) object is that you make a wonderfully complex social object with plenty of handles. This means people will talk about your product, which gets you that absurdly seductive "word of mouth marketing" that companies want to use to sell their products. It means you can use all the machinery described in the Tipping Point instead of having to barrage people with commercials. In Apple's case, your fashion accessory also has all kinds of cool features, making it accessible as an object to many groups. But I'm certainly not the only one to think of this -- as I was working on this entry, I saw a Wall Street Journal article about Levono trying to make their formerly staid thinkpads into something more fashionable. Initially, when pondering contrasts to Apple's products, I thought of the thinkpad -- its durable, boxy construction and "any color as long as it's black" look make a statement, but it's a quiet one. However, Levono gets it: "Lenovo is emphasizing design and style, and trying to turn notebooks into fashion accessories that reflect individual personality."

I certainly don't think this is a strategy for every product, and I think Levono has a long way to go to catch up to Apple. But, I do think object-centered sociality offers an extremely powerful framework for analyzing all kinds of complicated phenomena, and I can't wait to learn more.