Facebook: Valuable Business Tool or Waste of Time?

Like the personal computer, e-mail and instant messaging, social networks are now vital for businesses—even if they are also distractions.
  • Transcript


Question: How do the Internet's many distractions affect workday productivity?

Clay Shirky: There are several different trends at work on the work day.  My friend, Dalton Conley over at NYU, the sociologist, in fact, has just written a book about the way in which the formerly relatively sharp dividing line between work and home has blended.  That was a tradition in a way that started long before the Internet, although the Internet has certainly accelerated it.  In a way, Mine Sweeper, right, the old time-waster, has been replaced by Facebook, the new time-waster.  But Facebook is a certainly more pleasantly addictive pastime use of the service than Mine Sweeper was. 
But to the larger point about going into your workday, spending all day answering emails, dealing with interruptive things, and then leaving feeling as if you’re getting nothing done... it seems to me that we are at the crux of a fairly, fairly significant social change in the way we conduct ourselves in the workplace because, to make a bold prediction, things that can’t last, don’t.  Right?  Since it takes longer to answer a question than to ask one, we can actually all make each other too busy to get anything done by just asking each other a bunch of questions.  And the initial assumption when email, later instant messaging, and other forms of group communication came into the workplace, is that now, finally, we could be better coordinated.  The better coordination means more and more communications interfaces, thus leaving your friends, and in fact, all of us leaving the workday feeling like, oh my god, all I did today was communicate but I accomplished nothing. 
What we’ve seen in the kind of vanguard of social movement—the open source software movement is the largest sort of collection of participatory tools—is that open source software projects have consistently grown to such a size that they can’t actually host all of the internal communications.  And what they do is they then subdivide themselves and they develop tools, not to help them communicate, but rather to help them not communicate.  Which is to say, tools which allow individual workers to get their job done with a minimum of coordination.  And there’s going to be a competition among businesses to who can create the best environment for their workers that minimizes interrupt logic and minimizes coordination.  Because I think that the pain your friend is feeling, and again, that all of us feel, is really indicative of something quite deep, which is we can now communicate as much as we always thought we needed to in the business environment and it turns out to be catastrophic. 
So, in large-scale enterprises, the trick is not starting to be to figure out which kinds of communication are critical and which are just sort of “cover your ass” constantly “cc” everybody occupational spam uses of the tool.  And to start fairly rigorously stamping out that second category of them because if we all have each other communicate with one another as much as we think we need to, we’ll all swamp each other.  Right?  The source of your friend not getting anything done is other people, including him, on instant messages and email threads.  But he is also himself the source of other people not getting anything done.  And it’s going to take coordinated action, probably by the leadership of those companies to put the company back on a footing where you can minimize coordination and collaboration to the critical moments rather than having it swamp everybody. 
How should companies deal with these online distractions?

Clay Shirky: You know, different companies deal with it differently.  I think increasingly, between the cultural expectations and the difficulty of shutting off access, this is becoming like the personal computer, like email, like instant messaging.  Every one of those things—and you know, now Facebook and Twitter—every one of those things was brought into the business.  Not because somebody in the executive suite said, “Now we have to have personal computers.”  They were dragged into the business because the accountants hated talking to the mainframe guys. And so, once Visicalc came along, they just brought their own PC’s into the enterprise and hid it for a while. 
If you went and talked to somebody about email in the mid-‘90s, you’d you know, maybe they heard about it, maybe they hadn’t.  You know, there would be some, “oh, maybe some day we’ll get an email address.”  Right?   You go down and you talk to the sales guys and their business cards all have AOL addresses on them because their clients have demanded it. 
Instant messaging, if you talk to the Wall Street guys about instant messaging in the late ‘90’s, “do you ever talk to your clients on IM.”  Oh, no, no.  The FCC would never let us do that.”  Right? The brokers have an ICQ number.  So, the second phase of all of that is the business then panicking and saying our employees are doing something that we didn’t allow them to do.  At which point the hurdle the technology has to cross is, this is embedded enough in the cultural and business logic of this company, you can’t not do it. 
People in call centers will lose that battle.  Right?  If you’re in a call center and it’s gonna be you’re in a cubicle farm and you’ve got your script, and if you’re, you know, spending a lot of time on Facebook when you should be on the phone, they’re going to shut that down.  People in magazines, people in newspapers, people in the media are at the other extreme.  Of course they’re going to have maximum access.  But my guess is, that as with the personal computer, e-mail and instant messaging, participating in social networks as a way of figuring out what your customers are doing, figuring out what your vendors are doing, figuring out what you’re clients are doing, recruiting new hires, all of these kinds of characteristics are going to be... are going to seem to have enough value that after awhile most companies are going to capitulate and reopen the firewall inasmuch as they’ve shut it down.

Recorded on May 26, 2010
Interviewed by Victoria Brown