#WhyWeShare: Social as Play

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Not an original thought, but I often think of social as one big playground; a place to replicate the sandboxes of our youth. As I observe behavior online, much of what I witness reminds me of what I learned about play in school. As I observe and reflect my own actions, I wonder, does social extend the concept, or practice, of play? Does it extend it in a way that provides encouragement, or an outlet, for a term often frowned upon as one progresses toward adulthood?

The amazing thing is, the social tools we have at our disposal are very similar to the toys and actions we used in our efforts to enact play. With the infinite canvas of social tools and technology, do we adopt similar play tactics to achieve similar results? If so, what can we learn from play, as it relates to the question: why do we share?

In children, play serves an important role in both cognitive and social development. Children use play to better understand the world around them. As children progress through adolescence, play evolves in to what Smilansky referred to as sociodramatic play. This type of play is associated with the combination of imitation, drama and fantasy. Increased cognitive abilities allow play to develop into this more advanced combination of social and symbolic play.

This type of play is characterized by six criteria. These characterizations illustrate how play moves from dramatic to sociodramatic.

Imitative role play

Imitation or verbalization of a make believe role

Make believe with regard to objects

Verbal declarations, materials or different objects act as a substitute for real objects

Verbal make believe with regard to actions and situations

Verbal declarations act as a substitute for actions

Persistence in role play

Role play continues for extended period of time


Interaction occurs within context of play


Verbal interaction occurs within roleplaying episode

I believe we share under many of the same suppositions that children enact play- to better understand the world around us; to become active participants. Not only does social provide a much larger playground, but many more tools to play with.

Social as Imitation

Social provides us the unique ability to monitor the world we seek to construct and learn from. To pull from the sandbox analogy, we learn play through observing others. We then imitate play, based on those observations.

Social allows a person to follow an audience’s interactions without being connected. As with play, an audience is often imagined and constructed based on specific goals.

I would posit that sharing content operates in a similar manner. Sharing is a form of digital play. It is through the observation of others, that we learn, or adopt, how we share. In a sense, we can observe and imitate in a relatively safe environment, because we can manage what we monitor and how we respond. Anthony Giddens called this “reflexive monitoring”. We can observe and then imitate (and repeat). In fact, we can move beyond our sandbox. We have the ability to manage multiple social groups, and specifically choose how we then interact with those groups.

Based on the notion that a brand is socially and collectively constructed (i.e. in the minds of the consumer), how people share a brand’s content, and the behavioral and consumption-related cues observed by others, becomes very important. Understanding how, and in what context people share a brand’s content, can lead to tactics designed to illicit imitation (imitation templates?).

As we saw with the #IceBucketChallenge, people began to get more creative as they observed others take on the challenge.

Social and Digital Objects

Toys, or objects, facilitate play. With social, objects can manifest themselves digitally. Similarly, we are also not bound to those in our current sandbox.

Digital and social give people greater freedom to express their identities through digital ownership or proximity. Lury wrote, “one of the most important ways in which people relate to each other socially is through the mediation of things”. Possessions help to create individual identity and social affiliations.

As toys aid in imitation and play, online provide similar benefits. People post, pin and create brand-related content to craft specific identities (imitation). Sharing content is akin to playing with toys. Children collect toys to aid in play. Sharing allows portfolios of attachment. People create entire worlds through their Tumblr. People plan fantasy weddings through Pinterest.

Social Interactions

We have the ability to manage multiple social groups, and specifically choose how we then interact with those groups. Social allows us to separate audiences and adapt how we perform. There is a sense of fantasy involved. For any role we want to take on, there is a platform or community. Sharing is how many gain entree.

Sherry Turkle once wrote that computer-mediated communication collapses social cues and allowed for “digital play”. Social media affords people the ability to express themselves over multiple environments, in multiples ways and with multiple audiences. Just as we develop a sense of ourselves through play, we write ourselves into being (danah boyd), via what we share.

As we develop a sense of ourselves and the world around us through play, we employ many of the same tactics to create a version of us online. Sharing becomes the mechanism for much of this creation. Aside from simply creating a sense of our “online selves”, play is fun. Play can be adventurous. If brands continue to place an emphasis on ways to “add value” through content, an exploration of play may provide important insights to the planning process.

Gamification: How to spur play through content

Content that stimulates play, through game models, may increase sharing.  Creating content that encourages participation, that reflects play in an imitative way or through object play, intersects our desire to participate and self-express.






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