I am on a train, I am not a fan of trains. Many people think the same. This is a very basic example of a social object. A simple yet powerful concept that can bring two or more people together to share and discuss their thoughts and experiences.  To make connections with people we try and put some context around the person to enable the conversation to start and hopefully flow  ‘Where do you live? I know someone who lives there. What football team do you support? I prefer the other team in that city.’ These are social objects and they bring people together. The concept of the social object was brought to my attention a while ago by Hugh Macleod who produces social objects in the form of his artwork. He also writes about them and I urge you to check out his work.

You will no doubt have seen his work in countless social media presentations ‘If you talked to people the way advertising talks to them they would punch you in the face’ and his most famous piece is probably Blue Monster where he challenged Microsoft to ‘change the world or go home’. His work is designed to be used in presentations and Hugh encourages people to print out his work and display them in their work space. He has a name for these things ‘Cube Grenades‘ little messages designed to say something about your attitude to work, life what ever to maybe act as a conversation starter (or killer). If you are richer than I then you can even order a nice print of them or if you are really rich/less of skinflint than me you could even commission your own work from Hugh.  I myself have had a few (unpaid printouts) displayed on my desk to give me a smile/little bit of reassurance on those dark days.  These social objects got me thinking about what the social objects of banking are?

Banking as it stands is a fairly private and solitary experience. Your financial situation is discussed with your nearest and dearest and maybe some experts on financial issues e.g. branch staff, an IFA etc.  Data about your financial life seems to be as private for some as your health records. Should this be the case? For some it will always be the case for others I am not so sure. We may discuss at a high level some of our financial lives down at the pub or over dinner. We may get given a great stock tip from one of our savvy friends or an in the know cab driver. At first glance there may not be much else.

Without a doubt the biggest social object in the world of banking at the moment is banker bashing. The financial crisis and its ongoing ramifications have made banks and bankers figures of hate. From constant coverage in the media of the bonuses handed out to ‘Those bloody bankers’ to the protests against them by groups like UK Uncut. The world can come together and discuss how and why they hate banks very easily.  While a lot of the action around the financial crisis is justified and needed to ensure changes and cuts do not go too far it needs to be made clear that not every banker is the same! Certainly when I tell people what my bonus was this year they are somewhat confused when they realise it is barely enough to take my family on holiday and that I am not ordering a new Lamborghini and buying a holiday home in the south of France. Another concept of Hugh’s is the social marker a way of adding context to certain social objects. It could be thought of as a statement that defines in its purest terms what the object is about. The financial crisis has a very powerful social a social marker which frames the conversation by realting it very closely to a person. That person is Sir Fred Goodwin. Fred the Shred. He is the ultimate social marker in this regard but do some social markers add too much context to an argument or frame it in a closed way e.g. tar us poor bankers with the same brush?

The other classic social object for banking is charges. People love charges. Love them. OK maybe not. The sharing of charges made by banks is again something that is needed to ensure what the banks do remains fair. Some charges are justified some are not and are onerous. Sharing publicly more about these charges can help people see which organisations charge fairly and which do not. This maybe an area that banks are not keen to get involved with but the world is a place designed for sharing so they need to get used to it and behave accordingly. The bank that most openly shares their charges may well be seen as the most thoughtful and caring bank.

The sharing of financial data from financial systems is notoriously difficult for various reasons such as it is deemed to be risky (rightly so) and organisations might not be so keen to share it with other organisations. In my opinion at some point the ability to do so will become common place if not even a regulatory requirement, as it is in Germany.  If we can make sharing of this data safer for both the customer and the organisation then the creation of social objects around banking will become much more widespread. So here are a few real world examples I have found on my online travels.

Blippy, a social network built around sharing what you had bought, recently declared they were on life support and were close to pulling the plug.  Sharing what you have bought is a classic social object ‘Oooh I love it I must also buy one! Dear God you paid how much for that?!’. I personally think Blippy died not because people were not keen to share what they had bought but because there was no safe way to do it (I have spoken before about the anti-password problem in banking) and because no one wants a social network just to talk about that one thing but if you input ‘I just bought’ into Twitter search I bet you get a high number of results.

BillGuard is another startup looking to get people to share what they have bought but instead of to discuss the item this time they want people to crowdsource safe/bogus transaction. Post a worrying looking charge on your credit card and people in the community can confirm whether they have also had this charge and are worried or other people can confirm what it is.

Instead of focusing on what you have bought the opposite is also a perfect social object, what you are saving for. SmartyPig in the US have implemented this perfectly.  A quick search for #SmartyPigGoal on Twitter reveals what people are saving their hard earned cash for. A list of dreams, desires etc. etc. Saving for my dream wedding or 2013 Glastonbury tickets. If you so desire you can contribute to your friends savings goals to help them on their way of reaching their goal. Now if that is not a conversation starter I don’t know what is. Or how about eToro Open Book a community that shows what currencies people are buying and selling the act of trading becomes a social object.

What about those in financial difficulty? The natural reaction maybe shame at getting into such a state but by hiding this away it can only make things worse. A problem shared is a problem halved. Money Saving Expert have created a fertile safe haven for people to share their debt situations and get advice from a community of strangers to help them out. By building a community around the saving of money from vouchers for money off to detailed guides on how to batter down the cost of your mobile contract or car insurance, Martin Lewis and staff have created the biggest, and most viewed financial community in the UK. The website alone is the most viewed site in the UK about financial matters. The forum is second. Third is the Financial Times. His weekly deals email is subscribed to by over a million and a half people. It is full of social objects. it is itself a social object.

Another form of social object is the person to person loan. Kiva provides a platform for people to request funding for small businesses in remote places. The social object is the desire for someone half way round the world to start a business. The other side of that social object is the desire to help someone out. I think the successful social objects around banking need to engender that desire to help or offer advice based on your own experiences.

HSBC ran a huge global campaign back in 2007 called Your point of view. Adverts splashed across the worlds airports, global press etc. featuring a set of images and a caption that worked on both images. Perfect conversation/thought provoking fodder.  It was backed up by the usual microsite (now sadly closed) but did not really capitalise on the social objects it had created in the fact that they were not easily shared and there was no easy way to have a discussion around them. That being said the campaign managed to be excellently parodied as part of a spoof edition of the New York Times to commemorate the end of the Iraq War so it was obviously shareable enough.  The Financial Brand did a nice writeup on the your points of view campaign.

Another example of things that organisations could make more of by making them social objects is the PDF report. Usually the byproduct of some glossy brochure/report that has been created with the primary function of being printed and sent to corporate or premium customers. Some of these are published online but just as PDFs and as such are not that shareable. A perfect example would be the recently published (and updated from 2009)  future of business report by my employers. You can find the document along with others on the HSBC Business Publications page. What more could this have been? What elements that make up this report could be social objects in their own right? What about the raw data could it be published and shared? And what about the interviews that made up this report? Surely the super cities definition and how they were chosen could be a great source of debate, I mean it does not have Sheffield down as a super city and as everyone knows this is incorrect. (Disclaimer: I may be a tad biased on the Sheffield front)

These are just a few examples of the kinds of social objects I have seen but I am interested in what social objects will continue to arise and what social objects people would like to see from banks? The advice given in Hugh’s piece is to be able to clearly define what your social object is. I am not really sure there is a definite social object for banking but looking at the verbs most readily associated with banking (spend, save, earn, invest, sell, advise, transact etc.) we can see where they might appear. So what do you see as the social objects in banking? Should there be more or should there be less? Should finance be a private thing best left to experts or something that should be shared and discussed on a global scale? Let’s see if this social object can lubricate some conversations.