Open Thinkering


Jesus as a Social Marker? (or, How to Build a Community)

This is a scheduled post whilst I’m on holiday in the UAE – my apologies if I don’t respond to comments straight away!


In my last post I highlighted Hugh McLeod’s work on Social Objects, pointing out just how useful an idea and way of conceptualising the world it is. Hugh does, however, go one step further in the form of ‘Social Markers’. He gives many examples in this post but Example F stood out for me:

“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 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 your new friends to share.”

The implication is that Social Objects work within your particular circle as anchors around which to have discussions. Outside that circle and when dealing with strangers, Social Objects serve as Social Markers as a kind of shorthand. “I’m a Christian” serves as three-word way of expressing a whole worldview, expected way of acting, and (perhaps) engenders a level of trust.

That certainly seems a persuasive argument from a secular point of view as to the utility of churches in the 21st century. But I’m not really interested in whether or not the sacred can be classified with the profane in the realm of Social Markers; what I’m interested in is the concept of Social Markers and to what extent they can be explicitly agreed upon in advance. In his post, Hugh uses the example of well-known tech blogger Robert Scoble who, he believes, acts as a Social Marker:

“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.”

And, of course, as soon as someone become a Social Marker, they’ve got it made. People position and, to some extent, define themselves in relation to the Social Marker. They have an opinion on them/it, they have a relationship with the Social Marker – as does the person they’ve just met. These relationships with the Social Marker are then bridged forming a new connection based upon common ground.

Social Markers are nothing new and people have attempted to find some form of commonality, presumably, since the dawn of (human) time. Where it was probably more useful in the way of life preservation, it’s now a handy way to establish yourself as a node on a network and gain instant social cachet. In both examples the use of Social Markers is method of positioning.

So, you want to be a Social Marker? Easy. Do this:

  1. Decide on something you’re interested in. Find out what it’s called. If it hasn’t got a name, make one up. If it’s new, take every opportunity to explain to others what it is.
  2. Become known for that thing. This can be as easy as expressing an interest in something, asking people to share examples with you, and re-sharing them back (in a curated form) with the wider community.
  3. Tell people what to do with your stuff. Share this, amplify that. Seth Godin is awesome at, essentially, instructing people how to share his ideas and brand.
  4. Big up other people.When people use your ideas, express something you find useful, or share what you’ve created, collated or curated, thank them. Celebrate the formation of a community around an idea.
  5. Don’t charge fans Social Markers are, naturally, usually paid for their opinions and work in their area of expertise. Don’t charge the fans to make money, charge the people who want bespoke work or publishers. Don’t milk the community dry.

Who do *you* know who’s a social marker?

Image CC BY-NC-SA nathangibbs

4 thoughts on “Jesus as a Social Marker? (or, How to Build a Community)

  1. Cardinal Keith O’Brien, Archbishop Conti (eg last week’s Herald) – both of whom have helpfully informed political animals in DC (and elsewhere) that there tanks (late again) are not wanted on various lawns …. hope you are not apauled as I am quite sure in certain other parts of the universe you may have been locked up for your post

  2. I’ve heard the same kind of ideas put forward by a guy called Daniel Priestley in a book “How to become a key person of influence”. Thanks for this post Doug

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