In a physical setting, I've found that successful social objects tend to be provocative, relational, active, or personal. Dogs and stuck elevators are social objects. Exhibits that visitors point at or photograph themselves with are social objects. Exhibits that ask visitors to work together or compete are social objects. Social objects help us connect with others, and they become focal points for conversations with friends and strangers alike.
Today, a colleague introduced me to a different description of social objects, one that comes from the world of poetry instead of technology. The term is "the third thing," and it is the title of a moving essay by poet Donald Hall (also written in 2005), about his relationship with his deceased wife, poet Jane Kenyon. Hall wrote:
We did not spend our days gazing into each other’s eyes. We did that gazing when we made love or when one of us was in trouble, but most of the time our gazes met and entwined as they looked at a third thing. Third things are essential to marriages, objects or practices or habits or arts or institutions or games or human beings that provide a site of joint rapture or contentment. Each member of a couple is separate; the two come together in double attention. Lovemaking is not a third thing but two-in-one. John Keats can be a third thing, or the Boston Symphony Orchestra, or Dutch interiors, or Monopoly.Have you ever experienced not just a social experience, but "shared rapture" in a cultural institution? My mind immediately jumps to the James Turrell exhibit at the Mattress Factory, which I visited in 2002 with my best friend. It was in the middle of a snowstorm, and we were driving across the country. We'd heard about the museum but didn't know what to expect. What we found was an incredible exhibit of light sculptures, each of which required you to enter through a hallway of pitch darkness. We were nervous. We held hands. We were delighted. It was not just memorable; it was an experience that helped defined our friendship.
Was the exhibit a third thing because of who we were and what we brought with us, or because of what it was? Probably some of both. This leaves me wondering how "designable" third things are.
I think of social objects as (at least somewhat) designable. I often work with museum professionals to design exhibits to be more consistently social for a range of visitors. But third things are about the unique passions and connections between friends and lovers, not general sociality. Could you imagine a way for cultural institutions to help cultivate third thing-ness, or do you see that as something too personal and idiosyncratic to be intentionally encouraged?