The NHL as Social Object

By: Guest | January 29, 2013 | 

Today’s guest post is by Jacob Hurwith.

With hundreds of miles open to habitation, people still tend to build their houses close to the houses of other people.

No matter the continent, no matter the culture, no matter the era, this is what we do.

To find an individual choosing to live completely alone in the world is so rare, we can conclude human beings need to live amongst each other for optimum survival.

We are compelled from within ourselves to group together.

Humans are social animals; it is our nature to be so, but what draws humans together to be social?

Social objects provide that reason. Social objects bind us together. The more important a social object is to us, the stronger it’ll bind us to others who also hold that social object.

What are Social Objects?

Social objects come in all sorts of types and strengths. Good social objects are complex and have lots of hooks around which to start conversations. A great example of a social object is the NHL. The NHL has history, statistics, personalities, rivalries, and a plot with heroes, goats, and momentum shifts; all of which provide rich meat for discussion before, during, and after the games are over.

Ask any NHL fan about their experience during the lockout. Likely, what you’ll hear is outrage over the months lost, and sheer joy that hockey is back. But in reality, hockey did not go anywhere. Just our beloved teams of the NHL had disappeared.

When word first spread about the NHL getting ready to lock out its players, fans tried to organize the best way they knew how – through social media and word-of-mouth. Twitter accounts and websites popped up urging fans to protest online and in person. In fact, fans used all methods of word-of-mouth to try and force a deal to end the lockout.

From Twitter to Facebook, email to snail mail, and telephone to in-person protests outside NHL headquarters and club offices, it became clear a large group of people were missing the social object that bonded them and they wanted it back.

Sorry Seems to be the Hardest Word

During the dark days of the lockout, fans were angry. Social media was abuzz with groups and protests by fans outraged that the “talks” had gone on for so long. Through it all, neither side could muster up the energy to apologize to their fans or ask them to be patient.

Players took to Twitter calling their employers all kinds of nasty things, while the owners seemed to lock themselves in a bunker. It looked for a while as though the fans had finally had enough and commentators began to ask whether they would fill up the arenas should the NHL reach an agreement.

When the lockout ended, it seemed the angry fans quickly disappeared. Tweets from people threatening to boycott the game suddenly turned into Tweets about boycotting opening night, or not watching it. Then, Twitter started trending with topics celebrating the return of hockey. All those fans who were so angry with the league for turning their backs on them quickly forked over their money to secure seats for the remaining games of the season.

It may be easy to overlook the NHL or other sporting events as social objects because they are such an ingrained part of our daily discourse and culture. But strong social objects are meant to be an experience or object that brings us together; not some foreign object that we covet to physically possess.

People Trump Objects

Despite its power, it’s important to remember it’s not the social objects that matter. The people matter. Relating and being related to is what matters. Social objects are just the tool we use to make it happen. People are social creatures. Social objects are the tools we use to create opportunities to socialize with other people.

I would love to know what do you think. Are social objects key to word-of-mouth marketing?

Note: While he didn’t coin the phrase, cartoonist and author Hugh MacLeod certainly helped popularize it. In fact, he believes that social objects have been around since Aristotle’s day. He’ll be in Chicago during WOMMfest if you’re curious to know more.

Jacob Hurwith graduated from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and began his career as a freelance journalist. He then worked for a prominent commercial brokerage firm in Chicago handling all public relations, email marketing, social media, and design initiatives. Intrigued by WOMMA, Jacob jumped at the opportunity to join them. When not working, he loves to run along the lake, write, read, attend Chicago White Sox games, and spend time with college buddies.

Note from Gini: It’s rare a White Sox fan gets the stage here, if only for a day. I clearly was asleep on the job!

  • ScottCason

    I tried to stay bitter, but the culture of hockey is too ingrained in the faithful. It’s bigger than the stars or owners of the moment, and that’s why we come back.

    • belllindsay

      @ScottCason @sydcon_mktg  I tried to stay bitter too. I’ll probably be back to bitter if the Leafs play as per. 😉

      • @belllindsay  @ScottCason LOL…Blackhawks fans used to be bitter all the time too. In fact back when that was the case in our houes we followed the Leafs & our sons favorite was Mats Sundin!

        • belllindsay

          @sydcon_mktg  @ScottCason Awwww, Mats! 😀 Here’s s little bit of trivia for you: the year the Leafs last won the cup? The year I was born. 😛

        • @belllindsay  @ScottCason LOL! We have talked ages before!! 3 years ago I was in a similar boat with the Blackhawks. Its just proof positive that hockey fans are gluttons for punishment (like Cubs fans!)

        • belllindsay

          @sydcon_mktg  @ScottCason LOL!! Yup. 100%. Though if the Leafs ever won it, holy hannah this city would erupt!

    • JacobHoward

      @ScottCason We like to think the fan’s reaction had something to do with it.

  • WOW, ginidietrich   never ceases to amaze, a post about the NHL, are you reading howiegoldfarb ?
    I am the hockey mom in this community  & we have a few other die hard hockey fans around here as well.  I can say we are all thrilled it was back. My 11 yr old hockey player  is thrilled its back & is having great fun with his fantasy hockey team.
    The NHL and select teams do a fantastic job with social media. The Chicago Blackhawks (and no Howie I am not bias) do a fabulous job during the year & the season.
    Hockey fans typically have it in their blood and would return even if begrudgingly!

  • Interesting post, Jacob. “Social objects” are the key to word of mouth marketing. But I guess there are different levels and definitions of what a social object is and can be. The NHL lockout was a world event with world coverage, so it’s going to generate that buzz on social platforms like Facebook and Twitter.
    I am just trying to wrap my head more around what you are trying to say about social objects. 
    I’m thinking about this at a completely different level. There is this Korean Vegan restaurant I’ve been going to the past few months. The place is incredible — the healthiest and most calming place you could go to. And there is such a physical word of mouth buzz around the northwest side about it. The customer loyolaty is second to none. You walk out of this place just ranting and raving about every little detail about the place. So, there is a lot to talk about it. Eg; appetizers, sauces, music, service, water temperature, etc. Like the NHL, the conversation can go on. Am I making sense?
    So you have the Korean Vegan restaurant on the Northwest side and the World NHL Lockout — both attract rapid attention but just at different levels. Both social objects? ginidietrich am I nuts or on to something? Or just typing out of thin air…

    • JacobHoward

      @Matt_Cerms  ginidietrich Hi Matt,
      Thank you for your comment. I very much see your point, but I would not go as far to say the restaurant is a social object.
      The way I see, social objects are activities, places, or ideas that bring people together. Everyone loves their own restaurant, but it’s not like this restaurant is garnering the masses and sitting around a table to just talk about the restaurant.
      Hockey, on the other hand, brings together thousands of fans each year. People identify themselves as hockey enthusiasts. When the lockout occurred, needless to say, many were angry. They gathered together and took their outrage online and offline. The lockout brought these people closer.
      I don’t see anything occurring at the restaurant, unless it was about to close and the entire community came out to protest, making it into a social object.
      Do you see my distinction?
      Once again, thank you so much for your interest in my story.

      • @JacobHoward I definitely see you point. I was just trying to think of it in a similar but different way. Thanks for the response!