Stop talking about “social”

As I read, watch and listen to other people describe the changes in our industry, I’m consistently seeing two problems:
- Not enough people are recognizing that the web is being fundamentally rebuilt around people, and that this is going to change how all of us do business.
- Too many of the people who are thinking about social, are thinking about it as a distinct entity.

Let me show you an example of each.

I really like A List Apart. But in their reader’s review of 2011, where their readers talked about the biggest changes they saw in 2011, I think they missed the biggest change of all – that the web is being rebuilt around people. They talked about apps, mobile first, emotional design, measurement. But social design was a glaring omission. All designers should be recognizing, and should be on top of, this shift. Yes, “social” has become a buzzword, and there are many charlatans selling themselves as “social media gurus”. But this shift is very, very real.

At Le Web a couple of weeks ago, George Colony, the CEO of Forrester, gave an interesting talk where he described three social thunderstorms. The first and third thunderstorms were interesting – moving from browsers to local apps interacting with the cloud*, and the rise of social design within enterprises. But the second thunderstorm is where George missed the same shift as the readers of A List Apart.

George misunderstands the shift with the social web. He said “social” is:
- Running out of hours: people have a finite amount of time in the day and are already interacting with social applications more than many other activities such as exercising.
- Running out of people: penetration of people interacting with social applications is hitting 80 to 90% so doesn’t have much room to grow.

This analysis makes no sense. Social is not a feature. Social is not an application. Social is a deep human motivation that drives our behaviour almost every second that we’re awake. It doesn’t matter if we’re online or offline, on a browser or using an app. Humans are social creatures. George says 86% of US online consumers are social, and describes a “post-social” world. Again, this makes no sense. 100% of online consumers in every country in the world are social because it’s deep in our DNA to make connections and interact with other people.

The big shift that George is misunderstanding is that the rise of the social web is a structural change being driven by online life catching up with offline life. The winners in this world will be the ones who assume social behaviour in everything they do. It won’t be the ones thinking about social as a feature or product in isolation. The winners will be existing businesses who build on top of social platforms to rethink how their business operates. Here are three recent, and simple, examples:

- When you buy tickets on Ticketmaster you can see whether any of your Facebook friends have bought tickets, and if so, where they are sitting. Simple. Want to spend time together? Sit next to them. Want to do your own thing? Sit far away, or don’t buy a ticket.
- When you book flights on Air France, you can see if any of your Facebook friends are on the same flight and where they are sitting. Same as Ticketmaster – sit close by, or far away.
- When you browse for gifts on Etsy, you can use the things your friends have liked on Facebook to filter your results. Your friend likes Bill Murray? Here are all the products about Bill Murray. This moves the experience from a random and almost limitless set of options, to deep social personalization.

These are three dead simple integrations that substantially improve the core product/service experience. The leading businesses are recognizing that the web is moving away from being centred around content, to being centred around people. That is the biggest social thunderstorm, and all of us are going to have to understand it to succeed. So stop talking about social as a distinct entity. Assume it in everything you do.

*You should watch George’s talk to hear his pitch about the first thunderstorm. I’m not sure I buy it, but it’s a fascinating perspective.


  1. Hi Paul,

    I agree with you that social isn’t a technological feature but a human aspect and I your phrase “the rise of the social web is a structural change being driven by online life catching up with offline life” is spot on in my mind. Nonetheless, your examples feel unimaginative and actually fail, I think, to support that idea.

    You’re assuming in your examples that I will not know those information before using a service that provides me with something. I mean, if I go to a gig, or if I travel, I will have likely decided to so *because* of a discussion I had with friends before hand. There won’t be any need for me to search for them.

    Your examples don’t seem to really center around people but around tools and contents when the “people aspect” of those situations would have already been dealt with offline. In my mind, your examples are still highlighting services that people don’t require in order to live their relationships.

    Let’s take the Bill Muray example, honestly have you ever thought in your life “Oh my friend like him, I must find every products there is about him”. No what happens is something along “Have you seen that last movie with Bill Murray? It’s brilliant, you should go!”. Then the appropriate business, and here I do share your initial point, is the one that will build on that social cognition to hopefully profit from it while being as ubiquitous as a phone or riding a bus could be in my life.

  2. Thanks Sylvain, I used these examples because they are simple. The point with Ticketmaster is serendipity – not co-ordination or event planning. I think you have to try these examples to see how powerful they can be, and more importantly, how easy it is to design around people when you build on top of a social platform.

    I really encourage you to try the Etsy example. The point is that if you’re looking to buy a gift for a friend and go on any e-commerce site, you’re faced with a search box (useless unless you already know what you want) and a ton of generic categories (not much help either). But when you build an e-commerce site on top of a social platform, you can choose a specific friend to buy for, and see all the products available related to that friend’s interests. You may think you already know what to buy for that friend, but in many cases, we find it very hard to choose gifts for one another. The point here though is that what they did was structural and simple.

  3. Thanks Paul. That clarifies what you meant through those examples. I can appreciate their rationale.

    I find it interesting that you speak of serendipity. It’s a week to Xmas and I haven’t found most of my presents yet. The ones I found I did buy them online indeed, but as a matter of convenience. Nevertheless today, I haven’t even considered doing the rest online, browsing with luck. Instead I will walk down to the shops. It is where, I feel, luck strikes with the most meaning.

    That being said, I do realise now that I nevertheless followed a process similar to your Etsy example since I knew what genre of books my dad likes and looked for them on Amazon.

    In that respect Amazon has always been a interesting example for me. I think as a social platform they suck massively. However it’s still the place I visit the most because I see it for what it is, a shop. This is probably as ubiquitous as one can get in my mind. They didn’t try creating a new concept, they merely adapted an existing one to a different medium.

    Well, I believe I agree even more now with your initial point, social as a product is meaningless.

  4. I completely agree with you — for the last one year I’ve been telling everybody who’s willing to listen that we’re going online today to connect with people not information.

  5. Hey Paul,

    Just wanted to know if you’ve considered the logic when both those points are run concurrently. If you treat social as something separate then sure you can point to it as an emerging trend or future challenge for a business.

    However if it’s an integrated part of the environment upon which the business interacts with the consumer then the trend should appear as increasing demands from interface tools (mobile design, apps etc).

    I’m not disputing the focus of your post merely playing devils advocate against your argument of social not being properly recognised within those fora.

  6. The problem I have is that people that have the biggest impact on the net these days don’t seem to understand how people’s offline life actually works. Or about how people’s online life actually works.

    This is a perfect example. The first popular networked applications, ever, were not about things, they were about people. They were email and usenet. The net has always been about people. The net is not being “rebuilt about people”, it’s always been “built about people”. Social is not “new”. The net has always been a “social environment”.

    But gluing everything together and associating everything you do with everything else you do whether you want it or not isn’t being “social”. Real life isn’t like that. That’s not how people socialize.

    When I go down to the corner store and buy a soda, my name to the guy in the store is “the guy who always buys two diet cokes and a Monster coffee on Saturday morning”. That’s useful information to him, because it means he can be sure to pick up a couple extra Monster coffees when he goes down to Sams. He doesn’t need my name for that.

    And he doesn’t know that I bought tickets for a flight on Air France in February. If he did, I’d be kind of nervous and creeped out because I don’t know who this guy is beyond “the guy I buy two diet cokes and a Monster coffee from”. That’s all I need to know about him right now… but if he knew I was going to be out of my house for two weeks in February I’d sure want to know that he wasn’t going to slip that information to a friend of his so he knows when it’s safe to break in… and how many people can you say you know that about?

    Hell, even people who know my name, who I see every day, like the security guy in the building I work in… I’m not going to share my travel plans, or details of my purchases with him. I like him fine, and we stop and talk about stuff sometimes, but he doesn’t need to know I’ve got tickets on Air France in February.

    Because offline life isn’t a safe place you can tell everyone you meet who you are, and everything you’re doing, and online is no different… even if they’re “Facebook Friends” or “Twitter Followers” or people in “Google Circles”. And if I’m buying airline tickets, and I see any indication that this information is going to be shared with people I kinda know online, I’m going to go find another place to buy them from, because that’s got a huge negative value to me.

  7. Hi Paul,

    I really like this blog post and don’t often take the time to write long comments (like this one).

    We as humans have never experienced a situation where we’re so empowered with communication tools that do more than allow us to communicate – they also let us observe, find and connect with other people (and people’s organizations) freely, limited only by our individual ego and imagination.

    Historically, media as a communications tool have 3 main parts:
    1. the organization that constructs the medium (a magazine = content + audience). You need content for the audience, and you need audience to sell to advertisers/sponsors in order to pay for content generation experts who understand the needs of the audience. It takes a lot of time, money and the effort of smart people to start a newspaper, magazine or other traditional medium, because the organization takes on responsibility for providing customers (advertisers) BOTH the advertising channel and the audience.
    2. the audience that consumes both editorial & advertising content produced by the organization
    3. businesses/advertisers who’s target customer currently seems similar to the media channels available, and who have a budget available to “hire” a medium to provide an advertising channel and an audience.

    The traditional media organizations base their advertising pricing on a combination of a.operating costs and b.audience size and attention (larger, more engaged audiences are most valuable to advertisers). Media have to hire teams of professional advertising sales reps to identify and sell media/audience inventory to the “agents” or agencies recommending & buying on behalf of advertisers with budgets. Media space (and the audiences that come with media), is actually a giant money industry that keeps many people employed.

    Facebook almost markets themselves in a “Bait & Switch” way, if you’re a small business with little traditional media/advertising knowledge.

    Here’s how:
    Social media channels like Facebook send sales reps to market to the AD AGENCIES who have advertiser budgets. With advertiser budgets the ad agencies are able to purchase from Facebook advertising space that is equal to buying thousands of Facebook audience impressions, or clicks. Advertisers buying ad space from Facebook have only a limited amount of ad space & frequency they can afford within budget – so they will focus communication/messaging on ONLY the most important current sales promotion or offer. Clearly this is NOT a relationship-developing activity.

    Facebook now markets & sells their “advertising” opportunities beyond just ad agencies (since anyone can start buying Facebook ad campaigns for as little as $5), and their main selling point is access to their audience of 800 million + users!!!

    But, this is really only for paying advertisers to purchase. It is not a way to get around developing relationships with the people and customers who are most important to you, it’s only a way to get around (perhaps) building your own advertising medium.

    When you start a Facebook page, or profile, in essence you are starting a media channel that has no audience. Facebook literally gives you the media channel template (your profile or page) for free, because they are NOT including audience. You still have to find people and ask them one by one if they’re interested in your content and a relationship with you. This is the relationship-strategy that Facebook doesn’t communicate to it’s largest customers ~ they prefer you buy access to THEIR pre-fab audience.

    Another way to build your own advertising medium (and then to throw away the idea that it is advertising), is to develop your OWN unique content for your target audience, post it for free or little time/money cost to your blog website, then distribute and market you owned & branded content through your social media communities – the “audience” are the people you have connected with on social media. If you make an effort to connect with people who also know, like and trust you in real life, your social media “audience” will be significantly more interested in your content than new people who have never heard of you before.

    People (audiences) are loyal to the media they like (magazines, newspapers, TV) because it is relevant content produced/shared by people they trust (journalists).

    What if instead of looking at social media like an advertising channel, you (reader) looked at it as a way to connect and develop personal one-to-one relationships with people YOU know, like and trust? Build your own audience and engage the most important people in the group (to you), with content that is important and impactful to you both.

    Owning a media channel is a responsibility to your relationships with the people in your life, who you can also talk to on social media.

    Really, Facebook is a lot like a free telephone (hardware) – it doesn’t advice on who you should contact, for what reason, when is the best time to call or what to say to them. Only you can know this, based on a lifetime of trial and error, what will work for you, most often, when you’re trying to connect with humans and asking them to contribute attention, energy or money to your cause.

    It’s something I think about a lot, and notice many people working in social media (strategists, consultants and bloggers) just don’t understand (owning a media channel now is relationship-development focus first), so they’re not yet able to fully realize the ROI VALUE in using social media to support stronger relationships with the important people in your life – customers & coworkers, friends and family.

    I’d love to continue to conversation with you anytime ~

    Debbie Horovitch
    Social Media Concierge
    Social Sparkle & Shine

  8. [...] moving from connecting people to information to connecting people to people (see for example “Stop talking about social”) and gamification will gradually be integrated into every type of interaction, be it personal, [...]

  9. Love the opening and it’s a powerful message. I was nodding agreeing with Sylvain and even though he seemed convinced by your answer I was less so, regarding the examples. Sure, they are good examples of an ecommerce system built on top of a social platform – very good.

    But surely you are implying much more.

    A Social Business has to transform itself beyond just that example of social + ecommerce to include the whole enterprise and people transformation a la Zappos. I guess that’s what we are calling Social Design. I’d like to see significant examples which combine your point with Social Design, then that is a very potent message to business as to what challenges and opportunities lie ahead.

    Do you have some of those examples to share?

    Walter @adamson
    @igo2 Group

  10. [...] De Stop talking about “social” por Paul Adams. Un punto que muchas compañías y agencias deberían de leer. Sobre decirlo pero lo social en Internet hoy en dia es mucho mas que una página de Facebook y cuenta de Twitter. [...]

  11. Thanks for the blog! I assume you’ve seen or read about KLM’s new service?

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  13. Maybe what George Colony understands is what you dont get yet, since you are fully immersed in the social empire company.

    What i understand from his point of view is that our technical integration of the “social need” that you describe may not be fully satisfactory in many areas of our lives. The tech may not be as pervasive as needed to fully satisfy that need, also there can be two big different and not communicating network systems… instead of one.

    Take Orkut Brazil, it magically took traction on a certain micro-universe of users. Take china or russia where local communities are still far from facebook’s ability to help those people “connect”.

    Social is about noise-signal filtering, in our information environment. Social circles can add value only if we power them with our time an passion (since humans give back only on certain circumstances, while search engines give “one shot auto-learning fast answers”).

    Take those small strong ties between people… and… sorry i dont have time to go on :)

  14. [...] Stop talking about “social” » THINK OUTSIDE IN – while we're moving from connecting people to information to connecting people to people …. social is also about noise-signal filtering, in our information environment. Social circles can add value only if we power them with our time and passion (since humans give back only on certain circumstances, while search engines give “one shot auto-learning fast answers”). [...]

  15. [...] Stop talking about “social” » THINK OUTSIDE IN Stop talking about “social”. By Paul Adams in Social Media. As I read, watch and listen to other people describe the changes in our industry, I'm consistently seeing two problems: – Not enough peo… [...]

  16. Thanks for all the great comments folks! Some responses…

    I think it’ll be interesting to see what Amazon do over the next 12 months. We can see the possibilities with Etsy, I think eBay will follow, and then Amazon. Just speculation, it’ll be an interesting year!

    Yeah, I think you could view either as driving the other. I’m less sure about the web to apps migration as I have less knowledge about that space.

    For anyone interested, Resuna and I had a discussion about this on Google+ here.

    Thanks for your comments! Really like your breakdown (into three parts) of media as communications tool. It’s interesting to hear you think of Facebook ads as a “bait and switch” model. That’s certainly not how we would want people to think of it. Our primary message to advertisers and marketers is not about the reach of the audience (800 million is impressive and unprecedented but not what we want people to focus on). Nor is it the targeting capability within that 800 million (also impressive and unprecedented). We want them to focus on building relationships over time with people (their customers). We want them to think about their Page first, and Ads second. Ads should be merely a way to increase the distribution of the Page content. I don’t think we tell people to buy an audience. That’s one way to do it but probably not the best way in isolation of other tactics. We care about the quality of fans of a Page, not the quantity. And we want Page owners to think the same way. We care mostly about creating a valuable experience for our users and we’re working hard to build advertising solutions that maximize the user experience. We want ads to be additive to the Facebook experience, not detrimental.

    Yes, I was implying much more than the examples. I was starting simple with something simple that people could easily understand. The opportunities are only bounded by marketers imagination. I know that sounds cliched, but I think it’s true. Zappos is a fantastic example of a social business. All commerce companies, and beyond, should be studying the Zappos story in great detail. Let me think about examples of Social design, and hopefully write a new post about that in the not too distant future.

    Yes, KLM and Air France are now merged so it’s the same example!

    On one hand I’m immersed, but on the other hand I’m not. I do a lot of primary research, and spend a lot of my time talking to regular folks, understanding their life, behaviors, perceptions, etc. So I feel that I have a pretty balanced perspective. I agree that there will always be niche networks of people conversing over shared interests. Orkut is an interesting case (I used to work at Google and have chatted to the Orkut folks about their growth in Brazil). I can’t really talk about what I know, but it’s safe to say that external figures point to Facebook growing much faster than Orkut in Brazil now. I don’t think Orkut is a niche network. I agree that Circles is a trade-off between the perceived benefit and the amount of effort involved to curate Circles. I’m not convinced that for the majority of people, that the benefit outweighs the effort. We’ll see how it progresses in the next 12 months.

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  18. Hi Paul, I took your challenge and listened to George Colony’s presentation. Personally, I think Mr Colony’s message is misunderstood. He is speaking from his work with business managers, who are spooked at the time requirements of social networks. To the enterprise, it seems that the conceit of social networks is that in order to participate one must set aside a large time commitment. For many of these companies, watching social media is as if they are reliving the assertions that email would “simplify lives” and “enhance productivity”.

    I think you might agree with certain arguments — that the current mode of social interaction is transient, that we will stop seeing social as a “technology” and instead it will become like electric current, powering applications that are “more efficient, easier to use, (with) higher value-to-time ratios”.

    Me, I describe social as “addressability” — once you could only access documents that you had in your physical possession, but with search, you had “document addressability” where you could find documents based on author, subject, whether it was presented at a symposium, etc. I look at social as “people addressability”. No longer are your contacts restricted to the people you’ve met personally and inhabit your little black book; people addressability allows us to connect with people we’ve never met, but who work for a given company, live in a certain location, have certain interests, etc. Like dialtone, once you have the ability to instantly connect with say, your best customers, you have the ability to dramatically reinvent the way you connect with those people in a way that enriches your lives…without having to be a slave to the technology.

    My two cents, fwiw. Looking forward to reading your book.

  19. [...] Paul Adams summed this up nicely in Stop talking about “social”. [...]

  20. [...] Paul Adams summed this up nicely in Stop talking about “social”. [...]

  21. [...] Paul Adams summed this up nicely in Stop talking about “social”. [...]

  22. OMG – ‘post-social’ world is such a bad conclusion by Forrester, wow!

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