Social Objects and Campfires

Just found an interesting article about “social objects” via Stephen Downes. Back when I was writing more actively about learning objects, and the desperate need for us to consider the importance of social interaction in learning, I recommended that the proper way to think about educational content was as a campfire. The campfire does, of course, have important nonsocial functions (like providing heat) just like educational content has important nonsocial functions (like conveying information), but the most important function of both the campfire and educational content is the manner in which it draws people together. A good campfire is a thing around which storytelling, singing, and other social interactions happen. The same is true for the best educational content – it draws people into arguments, explorations, discussions, relationships, and friendships.

Martin’s original post referenced by Stephen led me into several by Hugh, plus video of Jyri’s talk that seems to have started the whole thing. Two points from Hugh that are worth reiterating here:

  • Social Networks are built around Social Objects, not vice versa. The latter act as “nodes”. The nodes appear before the network does.
  • My overall marketing thesis invariably asks the question, “If your product is not a Social Object, why are you in business?”

Without a campfire all you have is a bunch of tents setup and people wandering around disconnectedly. The campfire provides a place for people to congregate and interact. The campfire appears before the singing starts. Likewise, the proper way to view online content is as a “place” for people to congregate around in order for social learning interactions to happen.

The second bullet is perhaps the most revealing, though. If your educational materials are not “social objects” – in other words, if you don’t already understand that their main purpose is to bring people together so that social learning interactions can happen – why are you producing and sharing them? A relevant follow-up question is, if you are not providing the functional space for these social learning interactions to happen in (or at least pointing to a space where they can), why are you producing and sharing them?  This is the key question for all OER and OCW projects.

3 thoughts on “Social Objects and Campfires”

  1. David,

    Great post. I heard Hugh talking about social objects and had similar thoughts. Does this lead to the question of designing social learning interaction or can just embedding them in a social environment be enough for learning to occur?


  2. I am not sure about the “campfire” analogue, at least if you are not camping with a group of firemen/-women.

    But if you are, and you are an experienced firefighter having a campfire with a group of firemen/-women students you may use the campfire as a social object in your learning (zone of proximal development – Lev Vygotsky). The fire can be one of the mediating (social) objects around what the networked builds. The funny uniforms, professional jargon etc, are other mediating objects of the network.

    The objects are not there before the people: they are constructed – the meaning of them – by the people. for every firefighter “fire” means from some pars a same thing, and hopefully it is not signing together around it. 🙂

    This means that when the meaning is build there is a network. There isn’t network with out social objects and no social objects without network.

    More interesting links related to “social objects” and learning:

  3. Hi David, thanks for the link. I too used to write about LOs a bit (usually referencing you), and this came back to me with the social object stuff for two reasons: i) Are social objects LOs that you deliberately create with _social_ interaction in mind (lots of work on LOs seemed to be about interaction with the LO itself, ie they were conceived as multi-media objects) and ii) like with LOs the debate around social objects quickly becomes bogged down in one of definition. Almost every discussion I had about LOs started and ended with ‘but what is a learning object?’
    I’ve always liked your campfire analogy, so good to see it applied here.

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