The Social Code

Moving brand communities from
meaningless to meaningful

Why do two teenage twin sisters sneak out of their parents’ home to join ISIS? How does Ebola spark more terror than Lassa, an equally deadly and fearsome disease? Why have hipsters moved from Berkeley to Brooklyn?

You might not think that you are a brand, or that you buy brands, or that where you live is a brand—that is, until you consider that, like so many other things, brands too have evolved. “Brands” are no longer Mad Men in plaid suits trying to sell you something. Brands are not evil entities trying to trick you. Brands are communities: connected clusters of people who believe in the same things, dislike the same things, act the same way, talk the same language, and use a system of identifiers to signify who they are — to members within their same group and the world at large.

What moves this mass from cult to culture is its ability to transcend from being meaningless to becoming meaningful.

Consider this: If you hold a rock in your hand and show it to someone, it’s just a rock. But if you explain that this is the same rock that was held by the brave, unidentified man standing in front of the tanks in Tiananmen Square, that rock suddenly becomes meaningful. It has value. People will want to hold it themselves. They will pay to see it. Some will ask to buy it from you.

Brands are no longer a deified product or service endorsed by corporate marketing. Today, “brands” belong to the populace that creates them. (Some might say this was ever so.) Brands are a resonant thriving community of people linked together by common belief, common values, and common trust.

And a common narrative.

These communities are described as fans, enthusiasts, zealots, advocates, customers, consumers, citizens and voters. Their active output is fandom, expressed in the form of tweets, pins, word of mouth, screaming rants, attending Comic Con, or giving you a “thumbs-up” on Facebook.

All along the way, they whisper, “Be one of us, not one of them.”
Join us.

Designing narrative becomes essential to creating this level of fandom or support. It becomes strategic. And it becomes social.

Social communities are clustered around a common belief system. Who knew there was actually a “system” behind belief? A construct of seven elements that ping us, that our brains are hard-wired to respond to.

These seven elements are: the creation story, creed, icons, rituals, lexicon (or sacred words), nonbelievers, and leader.

This is the social code: a holistic construct that drives meaning and transforms what starts out as meaningless, to becoming a meaningful part of our world. It’s what turns social brands into viral brands.

1. Creation Story

The narrative begins at the beginning, with your creation story.

We all want to know where we came from, where we were born, who made us. Think of your profile on LinkedIn. Your “about” section on Facebook. The same is true for organizations, movements, personalities, civic communities, even products and services.

One of the first things we ask about a person or product that excites us is, “Where did you get that?” “Who are they?” “Where are they from?” “Who makes that?”

Every resonant and meaningful social community has a creation myth that describes how it started.

The story of how Jeff and Mackenzie Bezos drove from the east coast to Seattle, sitting in the back seat of their car as they wrote the business plan for, is an epic tale.

How TOMS Shoes founder Blake Mycoskie spotted children without shoes on the streets of Argentina and created a sustainable way to blend business and philanthropy binds us to his mission.

Facebook firmly established its creation story in the movie The Social Network.

Robert Kalin, one of the founders of Etsy, recalls how the e-commerce marketplace got its name. “I wanted a nonsense word because I wanted to build the brand from scratch,” says Kalin. “I was watching a Fellini movie and writing down what I was hearing. In Italian, you say ‘etsi’ a lot. It means ‘oh, yes.’ And in Latin, it means ‘and if.’”

Once we know where you’re from, tell us what you’re about.

2. Creed

The second piece of the social code is the creed.

The creed is the core of belief. It’s what brings people together. Whether we take oaths, pledge allegiance, or agree to privacy policies and terms of use, we agree either implicitly or explicitly to common bonds, interests, and goals. In the 21st century, understanding why we gather together is critical as people choose the products they buy, the places they work, and the communities they live in, based upon the beliefs, values, and mission they share.

Elon Musk, chairman, product architect, and chief executive officer of Tesla, reminds car drivers of Tesla’s mission: “to accelerate the advent of sustainable transport by bringing compelling mass market electric cars to market as soon as possible.”

Facebook’s mission is “to give people the power to share and make the world more open and connected.”

We are judged not by our possessions but by the positive effects we create.

Once we know where you’re from and what you’re about, please identify yourself so that we can see you.

3. Icons

Icons are the flags that tag us and show others who we are. Icons are also memes that instantaneously signal whether we should approach or avoid: they are part of our primal hardwiring and ping the essential meaning of our community in nanoseconds.

Look at an Apple store, Mickey Mouse ears, or the Nike swoosh — the essence, visceral presence and value of those brands is felt immediately.

Icons engage any or all of the senses: sight, sound, taste, smell, and touch. More icons: the American flag, the taste of McDonald’s French fries, the smell of your mother’s perfume. Iconic experiences are meaningful actions that immerse us in the bath of community: We feel surrounded by others like us, people with similar tastes, preferences, data points. We glow.

Next. Each morning, millions of people stumble to their laptops, tablets, and smartphones to check on Facebook, Snapchat, Twitter, Pinterest, email and other social venues. These are the new rites of the connected crowd.

4. Ritual

Ritual is the fourth piece of social code. Rituals bring members of the community together as they post, share, pin, poke, Like, Yelp, text, upload, download, Skype, stream, and chat.

Ritual is also process, method, procedure. We design rituals to create order and counter the random forces of chaos and happenstance. Social celebrations — New Year’s Eve, birthdays, weddings, Thanksgiving, Mardis Gras, July 4th — and posting those celebrations on Instagram and Facebook break our existence down into bite-size moments of meaningful joy pops.

Other rituals — like the series of interactions we make to purchase on Amazon, Shopstyle, or Cowgirl Creamery — are shopping rites.

Walking the dog is a ritual. Brushing your teeth is a ritual. Driving to work (or taking the train) is a ritual. Voting is a ritual.

User experience (UX) helps community makers create pathways for new ritual behaviors. Crowdsourcing is a ritual. Social advocacy is a ritual. Buzz is the ritual of social advocacy. Searching on the Internet is a ritual. Posting on YouTube is a ritual.

Going to the Google cafeteria is a ritual.

Weaving on a Rainbow Loom is a ritual.

Selfies are a ritual.

There’s more.

5. Lexicon

All social communities have their own set of words that is understood by those inside the community, but unfamiliar to anyone standing outside. Think of the first time you ate sushi: Someone walked you through the process of ordering.

Think of social acronyms, like “lol,” three letters understood by millions of people around the world who are members of the growing global digital community. This borderless community also understands acronyms like “lmao,” “afk,” “rotfl,” “pos,” and “fomo.”

As you may have guessed, the fifth piece of social code is the lexicon (also identified as sacred words). All social communities have their own dialect, jargon, idiom, and conversations.

They use specific words known, recognized, and understood by members of the social group.

These words (and acronyms) seem like a foreign language to others. If you know the words, you belong. You’re an insider. If you don’t know the words, you’re an outsider.

Nowhere is this clearer than when you start a new job. You spend the first hours, days, and weeks learning the words your co-workers already know. You also learn all the jokes and anecdotes everyone else knows, because you want to fit in; you don’t want to feel left out.

Whether the community is knitters, off-road enthusiasts, hipster taggers, makers of artisanal cheese, M&A lawyers, basketball coaches, baseball fans, or first-person shooter gamers, you have to know the words if you want to become a part of that community. How well you know the words defines your place in the hierarchy of doctors, lawyers, hackers, carpenters, plumbers, computer analysts, accountants, marketing professionals, mechanical engineers, cricket fans, music enthusiasts, taxi drivers, and others.

In the digital social space, we “pin,” “post,” “Like,” “tweet,” “Google,” “snap,” “status update,” create “selfies,” and apply other labels to social interactions.

Social media research scrapes the web for chatter and looks at the longitude and latitude of the conversations taking place. They create word clouds to see which words dominate the conversation.

Recently, researchers discovered that by analyzing the words used in Twitter messages, they are able to define which community cluster we belong in, simply by interpreting our language data.



6. Nonbelievers

All communities have a counter-community of persons who do not believe. This counterculture of haters, pagans, and heretics (think Droid versus iPhone, carnivore versus vegetarian, Jon Stewart versus Fox News, or Manchester versus Bayern Munich) reminds us of what we are not.

Nonbelievers is this next piece of social code. It is particularly significant, because deciding who you are not and never want to become helps resolve your own community’s reason for being. (There’s nothing like a liberal telling a conservative they’re wrong to solidify the beliefs of both.)

7. Leader

Finally, all communities have a leader who sets out against all odds and the world at large in order to recreate the world according to their own point of view. Think Elon Musk. Steve Jobs. Gloria Steinem. Sir Richard Branson. Oprah. Jeff Bezos. Nelson Mandala. George Washington.

In social media, key influencers become leaders, whether they appear as influential individuals, influential discussions, or influential sites. Why? Because where they lead, others follow.

The creation story, creed, icons, and other elements of social code become a strategic narrative that reinforces the vision, beliefs, and ideals of social community: This is how we started. This is who we are, why we’re here, and how we’re different. This is how we identify ourselves, and each other. Here’s how we do things; this is what we celebrate. This is how we describe ourselves and what we do. This is what we are not and never want to become. Let us take you to our leader.


These are the makings of community. The pattern. The elements will be different, based upon the community they serve. The creation story will be different, the icons will be different, the rituals will be different. The community will flex, mold, tweak, iterate, redesign and innovate until they make each piece of social code their own. And then it goes out into the world.

The pieces of social code can be distributed throughout social media. Metrics can be applied. Content can be tweaked, pivot, remain agile. Communities can go from vibrant to viral.

Join us: Be one of us, not one of them.

Which brings us back to a question: Would you rather live in a community you knew something about? Or in a community you felt something about?

Desirable communities have a narrative that is relevant, resonant and ultimately makes us feel that they mean something.

Think of a real-time civic community like Brooklyn. Since about the 17th century, Brooklyn has been a community for non-native Americans: a bedroom community with a long-standing past rooted between Revolutionary War battles, Walt Whitman’s stomping grounds, home of the long-departed Brooklyn Dodgers, and origin of the archetypal Sunday spaghetti dinner at Ma’s house.

Much has happened in and around Brooklyn, but its recent awakening as a cultural center able to rival Manhattan has emerged only over the last twenty years (or less). As real estate became too expensive in Manhattan, people made the trek across the East River to Brooklyn and found other spaces to live in Williamsburg, Park Slope and elsewhere. In time, cultural hotspots like BAM (Brooklyn Art Museum) and DUMBO (Down Under Manhattan Bridge Overpass) matured, and Brooklyn became a welcome place for the spiritual clan of writers, artists, dancers, musicians, and photographers. Sometimes more cult than culture, sometimes more wanna than be, sometimes (but not quite) surpassing Manhattan as the glowing center point of artistic heat. If you don’t get it, you don’t belong.

You can rightly figure Brooklyn’s social code on your own. From its origins as home to Walt Whitman and as a post-World War II bedside community, just a subway ride from the twinkling lights of the City of Manahatta, its iconic bridge has always been a part of Manhattan as much as a part of the borough it’s named after. The view from Empire Park gazing toward Manhattan has been featured in dozens of movies.

The Brooklyn accent is distinct enough to have been studied by linguists. But that accent is being replaced by the idiom of the esthete, the art gallery crowd, and the makers of small batch beer, whiskey, clothing, and digital artistry.

Nonbelievers (or pagans) are outsiders living on the Upper East Side of Manhattan. Or people living on other parts of Long Island, in Long Beach, California, or Houston, Texas, who just don’t get what all the fuss is about.

Leaders include the many political, social, media, and cultural leaders who propel the vision and values of this rising New York borough.

We can also deconstruct the code behind the mass communities that surround eating Paleo, global warming, the United States of America, the New York Marathon, Derek Jeter, or Cheese Whiz.

When haunting doubt pokes us awake at night, the wash of detail embodied in the social construct of creation story, creed, icons, ritual, lexicon, doubters, and leaders resonates in our instinctual intelligence system, our stomach brain, in our gut. It just feels right.

Successful media strategies are propelled by the social code. This is not about building Facebook “likes” or dominating Pinterest. This is about the reality of your brand and bringing it to life online.

The question is: How do we move citizens from Internet search to becoming a meaningful part of our lives?

The social code is a skillful mix of analytics, engagement, and open listening. It is the power of tribes and identifying the influencers within them to create powerful advocates.

Most ventures fail because nobody cares. We have already declared (and it bears repeating) that the strategic narrative shapes meaning around the community. It shifts attitudes and perception from being meaningless to becoming meaningful.

The role of community conversation and experience is to create dramatic, meaningful moments that are transformational, disrupt apathy, and move citizens from “Who cares?” to “I care!”

Throughout the course of history, this has always been the case. New thinking is continually rubbing again the status quo, and too many find it sufficient. But whether it was Galileo’s revolution, Steve Jobs’s ding in the universe, or a tiny Chinese man standing in front of a tank in Tiananmen Square….

This is how we change the world.

Excerpted in part from The Social Code: Designing Community In The Digital Age by Patrick Hanlon. Copyright ©2014.

Available on Amazon.