“Social Objects are the future of marketing.”

1. note to social media marketing dorks: the hard currency of the internet is “social objects”.

[One of my favorite recent “Social Objects”: a cartoon I did for Rackspace.]

The Social Object, in a nutshell, is the reason two people are talking to each other, as opposed to talking to somebody else. Human beings are social animals. We like to socialize. But if you think about it, there needs to be a reason for it to happen in the first place. That reason, that “node” in the social network, is what we call the Social Object.

For as long as I’ve been involved with the Internet, I’ve seen the SAME OLD DISCONNECT appear again and again AND AGAIN i.e. the disconnect between how the Internet ACTUALLY works and how the social media marketing dorks like to PRETEND how it works.

Case in point: From Steve Jones’ blog:

Today I received an e-mail that said “Like us on Facebook and win”. Later in the day I walked into a store and on the door was a sign that said “Like us on Facebook”.That’s like Billy Joel asking me to buy his album. It is like walking into a party and having someone say “Be my friend and I’ll buy you a drink”. In a word, it is pathetic.

Damn right it’s pathetic.

Note to Social Media Marketing Dorks: The hard currency of the Internet is not Facebook “Likes” or Twitter “Retweets”, as flavor-of-the-month as they might be. By themselves, they’re worthless.

The hard currency of the Internet is “Social Objects”.

i.e. Social Objects for people to SHARE MEANINGFULLY with other people.

You’re either creating them or you’re not. And if you’re not, you will fail, end of story.

I’ll admit, it frustrates me sometimes. People often think gapingvoid is selling cartoons. We’re not. We’re selling Social Objects. That’s what the Cube Grenades are. That’s what our pitch is.

I guess I probably need to work on it some more…

[The Social Object archive is here…]

2. social objects for beginners

Even though I’ve been blogging about it forever, some people still get confused by what a Social Object actually is. So I wrote the following to clarify some more:

Example A. You and your friend, Joe like to go bowling every Tuesday. The bowling is the Social Object.

Example B. You and your friend, Lee are huge Star Wars fans. You two invariably geek out about Darth Vader and X-Wing fighters every time you meet. Star Wars is the Social Object.

Example C. You’ve popped into your local bar for a drink after work. At the bar there’s some random dude, sending a text on this neat-looking cellphone. So you go up to him and ask him about the phone. The random dude just LOVES his new phone, so has no trouble with telling a stranger about his new phone for hours on end. Next thing you know, you two are hitting it off and you offer to buy him a beer. You spend the rest of the next hour geeking out about the new phone, till it’s time for you to leave and go meet your wife for dinner. The cellphone was the social object.

Example D. You’re a horny young guy at a party, in search of a mate. You see a hot young woman across the room. You go up and introduce yourself. You do not start the conversation by saying, “Here’s a list of all the girls I’ve gone to bed with, and some recent bank statements showing you how much money I make. Would you like to go to bed with me?” No, something more subtle happens. Basically, like all single men with an agenda, you ramble on like a yutz for ten minutes, making small talk. Until she mentions the name of her favorite author, Saul Bellow. Halleluiah! As it turns out, Saul Bellow happens to be YOUR FAVORITE AUTHOR as well [No, seriously. He really is. You’re not making it up just to look good.]. Next thing you know, you two are totally enveloped in this deep and meaningful conversation about Saul Bellow. “Seize The Day”, “Herzog”, “Him With His Foot In His Mouth” and “Humbolt’s Gift”, eat your heart out. And as you two share a late-night cab back to her place, you’re thinking about how Saul Bellow is the Social Object here.

Example E. You’re an attractive young woman, married to a very successful Hedge Fund Manager in New York’s Upper East Side. Because your husband does so well, you don’t actually have to hold down a job for a living. But you still earned a Cum Laude from Dartmouth, so you need to keep your brain occupied. So you and your other Hedge Fund Wife friends get together and organise this very swish Charity Ball at the Ritz Carleton. You’ve guessed it; the Charity Ball is the Social Object.

Example F. After a year of personal trauma, you decide that yes, indeed, Jesus Christ is your Personal Saviour. You’ve already joined a Bible reading class and started attending church every Sunday. Next thing you know, you’ve made a lot of new friends in your new congregation. Suddenly you are awash with a whole new pile of Social Objects. Jesus, Church, The Bible, the Church Picnics, the choir rehearsals, the Christmas fund drive, the cookies and coffee after the 11 o’clock service, yes, all of them are Social Objects for you and new friends to share.

Example G. You’ve been married for less than a year, and already your first child is born. In the last year, you and your spouse have acquired three beautiful new Social Objects: The marriage, the firstborn, and your own new family. It’s what life’s all about.

There. I’ve given you seven examples. But I could give THOUSANDS more. But there’s no need to. The thing to remember is, Human beings do not socialize in a completely random way. There’s a tangible reason for us being together, that ties us together. Again, that reason is called the Social Object. Social Networks form around Social Objects, not the other way around.

Another thing to remember is the world of Social Objects can have many layers. As with any complex creature, there can be more than one reason for us to be together. So anybody currently dating a cute girl who’s into not just Saul Bellow, but also into bowling and cellphones and Star Wars and swish Charity Balls as well, will know what I mean.

The final thing to remember is that, Social Objects by themselves don’t matter in the grand scheme of things. Sure, it’s nice hanging out with Lee talking about Star Wars. But if Star Wars had never existed, you’d probably still enjoy each other’s company for other reasons, if they happened to present themselves. 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.

As I’m fond of saying, nothing about Social Objects is rocket science. Then again, there’s nothing about “Love” that is rocket science, either. That doesn’t mean it can’t mess with your head. Rock on.

[Link:] Mark Earls has some nice thoughts on this, as well. “Things change because of people interacting with other people, rather than technology or design really doing things to people.”

[N.B. “Social Objects” is a term I did not coin myself, but was turned onto by the anthropolgist and Jaiku founder, Jyri Engestrom.]

3. more thoughts on social objects


Here’s some more thoughts on the subject, in no particular order.

1. The term, “Social Object” can be a bit heady for some people. So often I’ll use the term, “Sharing Device” instead.

2. Social Networks are built around Social Objects, not vice versa. The latter act as “nodes”. The nodes appear before the network does.

3. Granted, the network is more powerful than the node. But the network needs the node, like flowers need sunlight.

4. My overall marketing thesis invariably asks the question, “If your product is not a Social Object, why are you in business?”

5. At the Darden talk in 2007, I explained why geeks have become so important to marketing. My definition of a geek is, “Somebody who socializes via objects.” When you think about it, we’re all geeks. Because we’re all enthusiastic about something outside ourselves. For me, it’s marketing and cartooning. for others, it could be cellphones or Scotch Whisky or Apple computers or NASCAR or the Boston Red Sox or Bhuddism. All these act as Social Objects within a social network of people who care passionately about the stuff. Whatever industry you are in, there’s somebody who is geeked out about your product category. They are using your product [or a competitor’s product] as a Social Object. If you don’t understand how the geeks are socializing- connecting to other people- via your product, then you don’t actually have a marketing plan. Heck, you probably don’t have a viable business plan.

6. The Apple iPhone is the best example of Social Object I can think of. At least, it is when I’m trying to explain it to somebody unfamiliar with the concept.

7. The Social Object idea is not rocket science.

8. How do you turn a product into a Social Object? Answer: Social Gestures. And lots of them.

9. Products, and the ideas that spawn them, go viral when people can share them like gifts. Example: gmail invites in the early days.

10. Social Object can be abstract, digital, molecular etc.

11. The interesting thing about the Social Object is the not the object itself, but the conversations that happen around them. The Blue Monster is a good example of this. It’s not the cartoon that’s interesting, it’s the conversations that happen around it that’s interesting.

12. Ditto with a bottle of wine.

13. Once I get talking about marketing, it’s hard for me to go more than 3 minutes without saying the words, “Social Object”.

14. The most important word on the internet is not “Search”. The most important word on the internet is “Share”. Sharing is the driver. Sharing is the DNA. We use Social Objects to share ourselves with other people. We’re primates. we like to groom each other. It’s in our nature.

15. I believe Social Objects are the future of marketing.

4. social objects and homeless people.

So I’ve been thinking some more about Jyri’s Five Principles of Social Objects, especially how they apply to gapingvoid:

1. You should be able to define the social object your service is built around. In gapingvoid’s case, that would be the cartoons for the most part. The straight writing part I’m less concerned about.

2. Define your verbs that your users perform on the objects. For instance, eBay has buy and sell buttons. It’s clear what the site is for. The verb that springs to mind is “share”. The Internet is awash with people, using my cartoons.  My CC licensing terms are pretty open.

3. How can people share the objects? The key word here is “re-publish”. In 2007, Microsoft’s Steve Clayton was probably the most well-known of my “re-publishers”, as he was always using the Blue Monster cartoon for different things. Nowadays, people at Rackspace are doing the same with my cartoons.

4. Turn invitations into gifts. Again, the Blue Monster cartoon would serve as a good example. Microsoft employees hand out Blue Monster schwag as an invitation to start a conversation about Microsoft. The Blue Monster’s main function is not about the message, the Blue Monster is about the social gesture.

5. Charge the publishers, not the spectators. D’accord. The people who put the cartoons on their business cards are doing the paying, not the people receiving them.

Somewhere along the line I figured out the easiest products to market are objects with “Sociability” baked-in. Products that allow people to have “conversations” with other folk.Seth Godin calls this quality “remarkablilty”.

For example: A street beggar holding out an ordinary paper cup won’t start a conversation. A street beggar holding out a Starbucks cup will. I know this to be true, because it happened to me and a friend the other day, as we were walking down the street and a guy asked us for some spare change. Afterwards, as we were commenting about the rather sad paradox of a homeless guy plying his trade with a “luxury” coffee cup, my friend said, “Starbucks should be paying that guy.”

Actually, my friend is wrong. Starbuck’s doesn’t need to be paying the homeless guy. Because Starbucks created a social object out of a paper cup, the homeless guy does their marketing for free, whether he knows it or not.

Although I suspect he does. I suspect somewhere along the line the poor chap figured out that holding out a Starbucks cup gets him more attention [and spare change] than an ordinary cup. And suddenly we’re seeing social reciprocity between a homeless person and a large corporation, without money ever changing hands.Whatever your views are on the plight of homeless people, this is “Indirect Marketing” at its finest.

And of course, the way I market my cartoons and my other various enterprises is not all that dissimilar…

[The Social Object archive is here…]

5. “social marker”: the social object on steroids.

Increasingly I’ve been using a term, “Social Marker” to describe a certain type of Social Object. I’ve found it especially useful for explaining certain ideas to marketing folk.

When two people meet, the first thing they try to do is place each other in context. A social context. So they insert some hints into the conversation:

“I used to know your Uncle Bob.”

“I work at Saatchi & Saatchi’s.

“I’ve been reading Malcolm Gladwell for years.”

“I’m a member of Soho House.”

“I was reading Doc Searls’ blog the other day.”

“I was college roommates with your ex-girlfriend.”

“I was sampling some fine Islay single malts the other evening.”

“I bought some Versace shirts from Barney’s last week.”

“You’re a Green Bay Packers fan too?”

“I think Andy Warhol is overrated.”

“I think Led Zeppelin is underrated.”

“I was having dinner with some guys from Goldman Sachs.”

“My wife thinks the Upper West Side is really good for schools.”

“San Tropez is too expensive in February.”

Every ecosystem has its own, unique set of social markers- nouns that serve as social shorthand, stuff you use to let other people know ASAP that you know what you’re talking about, that you are a fellow “citizen” in a given space.

When I visit San Francisco I am always surprised how often the name of my friend, Robert Scoble comes up in random conversation, unprompted by myself. Why is that? Why is he so well known? Is his blog REALLY that good? Is he REALLY that smart and interesting?

Well, I could give a whole stack of reasons to explain why I think Robert’s success is well-deserved. But one major reason that his blog’s traffic is so high, and his name so well-known, is that his personal brand has somehow managed to become a Social Marker inside the Silicon Valley ecosystem. The same could also be said for Mike Arrington, Paul Graham or Mark Zuckerberg. Dropping their names into random conversations allows people to quickly and efficiently contextualize themselves.

Something similar happened to me a couple of years ago. An artist friend of mine was hitting on a girl, another artist, in a bar in New York’s Lower East Side. For whatever reason, the subject of “Art and the Internet” came up. So my friend started telling the girl about this other friend of his, who used to live in New York, who drew these weird little cartoons on the back of business cards and publishing them online…

“That is SO unoriginal,” the girl interrupts, rolling her eyeballs. “Who does he think he is, Hugh MacLeod?”

Heh. Small world. Yes. She was using me as a Social Marker.

Social Markers are a prime form of social shorthand, that people use to STAKE OUT the ecosystem they’re occupying. So why do I find this such a useful term for marketers? Because obviously, if your product is a Social Marker in your industry ecosystem [the way the iPhone is in the mobile world, or Starbucks is in the coffee world, or Amazon is the book world, or Google is in the search world, or Whole Foods is in the supermarket world, or Virgin is in the airline world, or English Cut in the bespoke world etc etc] you will have an AMAZING competitive advantage to call your own.

And if the product your company makes is not a Social Marker, I guess the first question would be, “Why the hell not?” Quit your job and start over.

[NB: Everything above so far was originally written and posted elsewhere on this blog, back in the day. Google it if it matters to you etc.]

[The Social Object archive is here…]

6. “hire gapingvoid”:

we’re currently accepting new private and corporate commissions a.k.a. “social objects”. please read on for some selected case studies, or for more background theory, read the commission archives.  thanks! gapingvoid@gmail.com

Traditional advertising doesn’t work very well.

Sure, it tries, and tries hard, but most of the time, it fails.

It fails far worse now than it ever did during the golden era of TV or print. Those days are gone. We live in The Internet Era now.

Old, traditional advertising was all about creating messages for the media, not about creating social objects for the people using the media.

“Social Objects” is what makes the Internet work, what makes the Internet possible.

Without the social objects, there would simply be no World Wide Web.

Social objects are part of the Web’s very  DNA.

In The Internet Era, an ad that isn’t first and foremost a social object, is useless waste of money. Even if we’re not talking about the Internet, per se.

Which is why I invented “Cube Grenades”: social objects in cartoon form, designed to star real conversations between people.

To me, Cube Grenades aren’t just about cartoons. Cube Grenades are  about something far more important- they’re about doing something that creates real change between people, that creates something that actually matters to people.

Social Objects: I use cartoons. What do you use? Serious question.



The groovy cats over at Shit Creek Con­sul­ting com­mis­sio­ned me to design them their business card.  After loo­king at the half-dozen or so ideas I pre­sen­ted to them, they chose the one above.

Shit Creek are a Mic­ro­soft Gold Part­ner. It seems a big part of their busi­ness is coming in and clea­ning up the mess left behind by the large tech con­sul­tan­cies [I’m not naming any names]. So that’s the idea I ran with.

The name of their com­pany implies they have a lot of atti­tude. They wan­ted a car­toon that con­ve­yed this. Easy. It was a fan­tas­tic com­mis­sion and I’m very happy with the car­toon they chose.

[The commission archive is here…]


For the last five years I’ve designed the poster for the annual Techcrunch Party. This is the one I did for July, 2010.

[The commission archive is here…]


A “cube grenade” commission I just completed for Thoughtworks, the global IT consulting company.

Thoughtworks has this term, “Watermelon”, to describe a project that goes terribly wrong, that looks all well and good on the outside (green), but as the project comes to an end, turns out to be a huge ol’ expensive mess on the inside (red). I just took the idea and ran with it.

We’re going to turn this design into a 100 large framed prints, as Christmas presents for their clients. A fun little “conversation starter” to hang on their walls… which of course, is what the the whole cube grenade idea is all about. “Art With Purpose” etc.



“The processor is an expression of human potential”. Exactly.

“Silicon chip as metaphor for blank canvas.” Exactly.

So this was my idea for my client, Intel. You know, the big microprocessor company. “Silicon Chips” etc.

First I drew a wee doodle of a microprocessor, like the one above.

Then I added a tagline to the image. “The processor is an expression of human potential”.

This was my “blank canvas” to start with, as it were.

And then I started to fill said blank canvas with images. As demonstrated below:

The images themselves don’t matter per se. The fact they were drawn by me doesn’t matter, either. That’s not the point.

The point is, as always, human potential. And what Intel can do to help said human potential reveal itself.

“The processor is an expression of human potential”. Exactly.

“Silicon chip as metaphor for blank canvas.” Exactly.

Then I added the Intel logo and their tagline, “Visibly Smart”.

We printed these up as fine art prints. Then I hand-signed them at the Intel stand at the 2001 CES (Consumer Electronics Show) in Las Vegas. You can seethe photos here on Flickr.

[The commission archive is here…]


[“Sacred Zombie Cow”. Click here to download free high-rez download etc.]

Thanks to David Gammel of Orgpreneur.com for the great commission. Backstory here.

A “Sacred Zombie Cow” is David’s term for an idea that still lives within an organization, that has long outlived its usefulness.

[The commission archive is here…]



Recently I completed one of my most ambitious pieces in a while- a private commission from Tara, for her boyfriend, Remi’s birthday.

Go here to check out all the photos and the complete backstory.

[Though I haven’t talked about it too much on the blog, yes, I do private commissions. Feel free to contact me at gapingvoid@gmail.com if you want to discuss further, Thanks.]

[The commission archive is here…]


February, 2010 I flew to St. Louis, to give a talk at Purina, the giant pet food company that’s owned by Nestle. It was their big, annual digital summit. All their top digital marketing folk (and their top ad agency digital folk) were there.

I talked about “Social Objects”, and how I believe they are the future of marketing.

Above is the print they commissioned me to draw for them. I like how it turned out. “All products are information” refers back to something I wrote a few years ago, “The Kinetic Quality”.

How often do large, well-known companies call you up and ask you to draw a cartoon for them? Exactly. I’ve worked in the tech world for big clients before- Sun, Dell, Microsoft etc- but this is my firstcommission with a large, FMCG brand (Fast-Moving Consumer Goods). Not to mention, I’ve always held Nestle and Purina in very high regard. So naturally, I was pretty excited. Rock on.

[The commission archive is here…]

viii. FIZZ

I did this cube grenade for Fizz, the well-known Word-Of-Mouth marketing agency [They did all that ground-breaking stuff for Pabst Blue Ribbon etc.].

This idea is so simple… do I really have to explain it? Exactly.

[The commission archive is here…]


These are three from an ongoing series of cube grenades I was commissioned to do for Rackspace, the large hosting company in San Antonio. I was hired by Rob La Gesse [he’s the same guy who hired uber-blogger, Robert Scoble], to create new ideas/messages in order to shake things up internally. So far it’s working.

[You can see the Rackspace cartoon archive here.]

[The commission archive is here…]


Jerry Colonna used to be a Venture Capitalist. He was EXTREMELY successful as a partner with Fred Wilson at Flatiron Partners. Before that, he was an investment banker on Wall Street.

Then he decided he wanted out of the business. He had made his money, he now wanted to give back.  He wanted to teach.

After teaching business classes at CUNY in New York for a little while, he set himself up as a business coach. A damn good one.

“A bit like being a shrink,” he told me, “but more business-focused.”

A big part of his modus operandi is not telling people what to do with their businesses, but trying to get them over their fears of achieving that which they MUST do, if they want to become the people they one day hope to be.

“The issues my clients fear the most tend not to be the actual stuff out there- competition, cashflow, marketing,” he says, “but the worst-case imaginary scenarios. ‘The Monster Inside Their Heads’, as it were. So a central tenet to what I do is helping them to get over The Monster.”

So he commissioned me to draw a Monster-themed signed, fine-art print to give away as presents to his best customers and allies. Something to keep on the office wall as a cons­tant reminder.

I was glad to do it. I’ve always got my fair share of Monsters, myself. Rock on.

[The commission archive is here…]


A wee commission I did for crashcourse.ca, an education resource. Yes, I wrote the headline. Go see.

[The commission archive is here…]


My old advertising buddy, Vinny Warren, commissioned me to draw him a Cube Grenade for his Chicago-based ad agency, The Escape Pod.

“We are not in the advertising business, we are in the decommodification business” is a line of mine that Vinny has been borrowing from me for a while now. So it seemed appropriate to design something around that.

[The commission archive is here…]



Tim Porthouse over at Zealeap.com commissioned this design for his company. The copy at the bottom (which I wrote) reads:

“when a business stops creating, it dies. when a business stops creating culture, it dies. business cultures are not created, they are re-created. business cultures are not created, they are co-created. without collaboration, there is no creation. a business that does not understand its own culture. does not understand its own business. culture matters. the world has gotten too interesting and too competitive to think otherwise. reality is scary. reality is wonderful.”

Cultural Transformation, Baby. That’s where it’s at these days. Exactly.

[The commission archive is here…]

xiv. HNI

A cube grenade I did for HNI Insurance.

A lot of HNI’s trucking clients operate with profit margins of around 2%. Ouch.

I like the cartoon just because it’s brutally in-your-face and to the point. No messing around.

Of course, the easiest way for their clients to increase their margin, is to lower their risk. Which is where HNI comes in. Ker-chiing.

[More HNI cartoons here etc.]

[The commission archive is here…]



In early 2009 I was hired by a Brazilian ad agency, agenciaclick to create a privately commissioned edition of the Cube Grenade above.

As with my other clients, they didn’t want these prints just for themselves; they wanted to give these out to their clients, as conversation starters.

“All brands are open brands? Huh? What does that mean? Do you agree with it? Why? What does “open” actually mean? What does “brand” actually mean…?” You get the picture. The same idea that made The Blue Monster so successful. Again, it wasn’t about the message, the object. It was all about the social.

[The commission archive is here…]


The Blue Monster was a cartoon-based “Social Object” that me and my Microsoft buddy, Steve Clayton, unleashed on the good but unsuspecting folk at Microsoft back in 2007. For those unfamiliar with it, you can find the backstory here on Google. It’s probably my best-know idea to date.

[The commission archive is here…]

xvii. LINE2

One of cartoons I did for the  hackthephonecompany.com campaign for the client, Line2, the SF-based VoIP company.

Yeah, we went after AT&T. Naughty us.

[The Line2 cartoon archive is here.]

[The commission archive is here…]

xviii. RACKSPACE 2

There seems to be a conversation happening internally at my client, Rackspace. Spearheaded by people like Robert Scoble and the guy who hired him (and who also hired me), Rob La Gesse.

“Don’t be normal”.

Who wants a “normal” job, anyway?

Who wants a “normal” employer, anyway?

Who wants a “normal” life, anyway?


So why not say it, loud and proud?

So I drew some cartoons on the subject.

I’m thinking they’d make great recruiting posters…

[P.S. At the time of posting these on the blog, Rob hadn’t seen these cartoons yet. He lets me post my ideas “live”, without having to go through him first. THAT IS WHY I’m psyched to be working with Rob and Rackspace. Just so you know.]

[The commission archive is here…]


Jeff SandquistRobert Scoble’s old boss at Microsoft’s Channel Nine, commissioned me to design this business card for him.

He wanted a design that worked for both techies and non-techies alike. Something that made him appear both good at his job, but still a human being etc.

Fun! Thanks, Jeff!

[The commission archive is here…]

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Hugh MacLeod is a genius.  Genius.

Seth Godin
Best Selling Author

His work acknowledges the absurdity of workaday life, while also encouraging employees to respond with passion, creativity, and non-conformity...   MacLeod’s work is undeniably an improvement over the office schlock of yore. At its best, it’s more honest, and more cognizant of the entrepreneurial psyche, while still retaining some idealism.

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