Wednesday, January 20, 2010

A Poetic Take on Social Objects: The Third Thing

One of my favorite theoretical constructs is "social objects"--the idea that the most consistent social and dialogue experiences are mediated through shared experience of artifacts, stories, or images. In 2005, Jyri Engestrom coined the term "social objects" and the related "object-centered sociality" in the context of designing successful online social networks, and I've been applying the idea in the physical design of exhibits. The basic idea is that by providing tools for people to discuss and share objects, they can come together in collective experience.

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?

18 comments, add yours!:

David K said...


Yes. I think they can be purposefully designed. For some reason, I'm thinking of "the Bean" in Millennium Park in Chicago. You literally see yourself and the city transformed in it's reflection. You approach it from either side and eagerly walk beneath it. You can't help but laugh and feel like a kid again. The Bean taps into universal Ur feelings and memories that connect us ( I think). So, that's it... reflection (literal and figurative), childish fun and play, approachability, collective experience, universal feelings/memories.

Handmade Librarian said...

My experience with my husband at the Sol LeWitt retrospective came to mind immediately as a third thing. The exhibition allowed a sense of discovery and wandering--small rooms painted in bold patterns evoked gasps of delight from whomever glimpsed each one first. We circled back and around a number of times, discussing and sharing our favorites. The art itself encouraged both intimate examinations as well as stand-back-in-awe experiences. And it actually got us talking with strangers too--so it became a third thing with us and other groups too. The exhibition encouraged an immersion and participation that was unusual, we felt.

Gabriela NC said...

Thanks for your post. Yes, I would like to see as many museums as possible that cultivate third-thingness. I think one "solution" would be to avoid being pedant and excessively educative...
I am doing my PhD research in a museum of ethnography in Romania. I think this museum - or some of its exhibition rooms have a big dose of third-thingness.
"On the other side of the door there is time. Open the door!" says one inscription...
and me and many of my friends were fascinated of being invited to do it. If you are curious, give a look on its web-site. Sone beatigul pictures. Objects have no labels. One get to know stories...

Anonymous said...

One experience I can quote from my personal memory is a visit to Niki de Saint Phalle's Garden of Tarots in Capalbio, Tuscany. The place is wonderful, in its literal sense of "full of wonder" and its sculptures provoked what Handmade Librarian quoted in the Sol Lewitt exhibition: for most of the walk around this incredible place me and my companion could just stare around in ecstacy and the feeling was shared with this group of around 40/50 germans who toured open mouthed with us and exchanged meaningful and smiling international "ahs".
I believe that there are objects like music and art (or food) that can be the place where a couple finds that terrain in common which makes life in two totally special. In a museum curiosity or wonder are the two elements that trigger sharing an experience and the object/s becomes social.

Philippa said...

A few years ago I was working on a project that encouraged parents to talk to their very young kids about museum objects.

One of the Eureka! moments of the project for me was on a trip out to the Natural History Museum observing which individual specimens on display became that 'third thing' (it was a lion who, unlike the rest of the display which is all fierce fighting poses, had been set with a gentle peaceful look out, it was the first time I'd realised how important taxidermy is in how the audience interact with Natural History).

I think we all have third thing objects on display in our museums, we just don't always know it (which shows we need to watch our visitors more) as it's rarely a deliberate part of the display planning process.

It's an interesting question as to if you do know, what should you do about it? How do you encourage and not kill the third-thing reaction?

Unknown said...

Social objects are definitely designable. Years ago, when I was a newbie museum guy, I went with my boss to go see an exhibition at the Hood Museum at Dartmouth called "The Age of the Marvelous" That afternoon is still fresh in my mind almost 20 years later.

The exhibit tried to get inside the mindset of Europeans at the end of the Renaissance, when our profession was in its infancy, by creating their own Wunderkammer for visitors to explore. It was magical. We were surrounded by familiar museum objects (some from our own collection) but displayed in groupings and settings that were alien to our experience.

Seeing the natural history specimens arrayed in pleasing patterns, the jumbles of scientific instruments and books brought us both into that state of seeing the objects not just as museum objects, but as marvels. We circled around like kids, pointing out things to each other, talking about "what ifs", and connecting the experience to our own work and lives.

The only reason we left was because the air-conditioning was near Arctic.

lotusmoss said...

I think this focus on social objects is extremely important. However, "social objects" is not a term that was coined in 2005. The notion of "social objects" has been an important part of anthropology (though often marginalized), and the center piece of material anthropology, since the beginning of the discipline. One of the first and most seminal works was Arjun Appadarai's 1988, The Social Life of Things, and since then there has been a glut of literature in the same vein.

Following up on Gabinetto Uezum's comments (while I don't necessarily espouse museums always being sans-label), I think it's important to remember what objects can do that text and words cannot--this third-thing you speak of. There's a lot of material anthropology literature out there that taps into the sensuality of the object in an intelligent way.

Fun play online said...

Well, we spent last Xmas in Montevideo, Uruguay and we visited the Iberoamerican Museum of Art where although the main focus is on Native American art and history there is also a whole top floor devoted to modern art. The exhibition at the moment was cool but not that special whereas the building and atmosphere were simply unique! The museum is housed in a stunning historical building in the Old Town being restored and you could wander about huge empty rooms and enjoy stunning views of the city, the port and the seaside. I remember it was pouring down at the time and the rain added to the melancholy and magic of the place. Probably one of my favourite museum visits ever!

Nina Simon said...

Thanks for the great comments and stories! And especial thanks to lotusmoss for the anthropology reference - my suspicion is that Engestrom was the first to apply social object theory to online social networks, but that could be wrong. I will investigate further!

Nina Simon said...

Wow, Gabinetto - that Romanian Peasant Museum looks incredible. Thanks so much for the link.

Philippa - I've been using four basic descriptors for social objects when working with cultural organizations--personal, relational, provocative, active. I often do workshops where staff go on tours to find their social objects and then brainstorm ways to make them "more social." For example, at a transportation museum in New Zealand, staff observed that a traffic light had become much more popular when it was switched on and cycled through the lights--children used it to play Red Light Green Light (also called Go Stop). We talked about making it even more game-like by varying the time of each light, or letting visitors control the light themselves to create their own games.

I think there are lots of ways to activate objects socially in this fashion. But it takes something special to create a truly transcendent, rapturous shared experience!

lotusmoss said...

@Nina Simon. There are some good reading lists online, including: and

Anthro. heavy, but gets really into the meaty theory of social objects (not in terms of online social networks, however).

Maureen said...

I loved this post!! Thanks for the new term "shared rapture". It fills a hole in my conceptual framework, one that has needed filling for years.

I've already put the term into use, in a blog post I wrote about our experiments with visitor mobile devices. One of the issues we need to confront is the threat devices pose to the gallery environment. Are they necessarily intrusive in a way that interrupts rapture, whether it be solitary or shared?

The jury is still out on mobile devices, but personally, I think there are attractive solutions. Headphones for starters, which eliminate noise and permit the device to go into a pocket, sack or at the very least below eye level.

Of course, "shared rapture while listening to audio tour" may be an oxymoron.

Peter LInett said...

A lovely reading of Donald Hall, Nina. I love his poems (and his books for kids), and the collection about Jane's death is sublime in the old sense: dangerous and beautiful.

David's point about the Bean here in Chicago is right on, but the feelings he describes are due in part to the fact that you're almost always framed in its surfaces with others: you're part of a collective, watching each other watch each other and trying to pick ourselves out in the crowd.

Hall's quote suggests he's not necessarily talking about intentionally social objects. He's talking about a (contingent, transient) relationship between two people that's occasioned by an object (or some other phenomenon), right? The objects become social in that relationship, whether they were intended by that way or not. So even a traditional museum display can work that magic, as some of the commenters' stories suggest.

But obviously museums make that relationship more or less likely with every decision and assumption they make about an exhibit. So the first step is probably what you're doing: giving them a vocabulary and a concept so it can become part of their goals & objectives conversation (not just for certain exhibits designated as participatory, but potentially for all kinds of exhibits and programs).

Once it's a goal, the next trick will be to evaluate whether or not it's happening. We may need to try some new research methods to get at these subtle, human questions (about the currents and satisfactions that flow from one person to another in such moments...or don't flow). But it's not impossible.

Mary said...

A site of joint rapture or contentment ... A couple of third things that Hubby and I share come to mind that meet this definition: Our cats, particularly our Schmutz, perhaps the sweetest cat we've ever known; and the Como Park Conservatory.

When it comes to the cats, we often talk to each other by remarking on the cats. Not that we have difficulty talking directly to each other, but the cats are a focusing agent, a shared experience of delight.

The Como Park Conservatory is a delight in that we both enjoy the space and the plants and the secretive, peaceful feeling the place gives us. Most people prefer the zoo portion of Como Park, but not us. We enjoy the uncrowded Conservatory and our repeat visits are what makes this a third thing for us.

Merete Sanderhoff said...

Thanks for inspirational post + comments! I got thinking about the shared rapture when as a kid I would share my walkman with a friend, each using one earplug. Maybe the cosiness of this could be applied to a museum experiencde. We're considering doing audio tours with music in stead of speak - music that's picked out especially for specific tours round the galleries to set a certain atmosphere. The idea of third-things makes me think that we should try making musical audioguides with shared earplugs for visiting couples or friends. It might be based on playlists where you could choose your favourite song or tune and then stroll through the galleries with your best friend by the hand, sharing an audiovisual moment. Maybe museum visitors already do that using their ipods?

claire antrobus said...

Children are the most fantastic social objects - having become a mother recently (and often being out in public spaces with my tow) i am always struck by how people interact with one another around children (parents mainly, but also grandparents, aunties/ uncles etc).
In terms of art/ cultural institutions - there's a fantastic James Turrell installation near us at Yorkshire Sculpture Park - it's a sky observatory. But the most 'social' experience I've had recently in a cultural organisation was at the Anish Kapoor exhibition at the Royal Academy in London. On the whole I don't think this was designed as a 'social experience' but it worked as one.

If you don;t know Anish Kapoor's work - it's large scale abstract sculpture.

Strangers don’t usually come up and talk to me in art galleries – asking how the sculpture ‘works’ or what it ‘does’. But that's what I experienced at the RA exhibition.

Most exceptionally, some visitors came up to me – offering to ‘demonstrate’ how a mirror-piece worked, or how to get a resonant hum from the corten steel form Hive (2009) by standing very close and whispering at a certain low frequency.

Usually, in an exhibition of contemporary, abstract sculpture – the audience moves quietly around, looking with respect and detachment at the objects on display. Not in this exhibition – people were talking to one another – to their companions and to strangers. And they were constantly pushing the boundaries of what were allowed – to do in the space (such as standing too close, touching things), much to the irritation of the RA staff who had to repeatedly tell people off.

I wonder what made it work?

The exhibition was packed full with a wide range of audiences from the typical ‘dinner and a show’ silver-haired-RA-regulars, to students and many young families. Perhaps this high volume of visitors added to the informal atmosphere which created what felt like a very ‘social space’ in the galleries. Safety in numbers?

Sometimes I moan about art institutions not being engaging - but this was one of the most successful social/cultural experience I've seen. Interesting that there was so much tension between the institution and how the audience wanted to act/ the reaction the work created in us. Those boundaries between what you're allowed/ expected to do in the space and how you can enjoy the experience seem very important to me. (I will stop now as could could on for pages - but 2 things come to mind, in the 1950s the Whitechapel a well-known contemporary art gallery in a deprived area of London used to allow its visitors to smoke in the galleries to make them feel more relaxed, and I understand that Tate is now allowing people to use phones in their collection galleries - not least because of the cameras and desire to share images).

H.S. said...

Designability: Yes, I believe that objects can be chosen and presented such as to stimulate social interaction.
I think that key to designing such experiences is to consider the ressources of the visitors. Many visitors like to share when they encounter an object that meets with their previous interests and knowledge.
I saw visitors who had never met before exchanging knowledge, guesses and ideas about objects in a 'cabinet of curiosity' in an astronomy exhibition.
I had designed the cabinet like a table for visitors to stand around and see what others were doing. They could hold the objects in their hands and show them to each others. Talking to each others was only the next step easy to take.
Explanations weren't immediately available. Object labels were placed on another table. This arrangement resulted in reading not interfering with ineractions too quickly. The uncertainty of what the objects were and how they worked remained for a while, leaving enough time for sharing ideas and knowledge.
I like the idea of the object as the third thing. We often treat objects as first and only things in an exhibition, leaving little space for visitor contributions to knowledge construction.

Rachel Morris said...

I think I may have come three years too late to this conversation but now you've introduced me to the concept of 'third thing-ness' I can see it everywhere and it's spot on. Things are there to weave connections between ourselves and the people we love most. (I say 'things' but actually it works the same with babies - the two of you stare at them and think, 'Wow, did we make that?') Will now explore the anthropological literature on the subject.