How social networks beat email

By Felix Salmon
December 26, 2011
Maija Palmer, with another one of those end-of-email articles, finds this intriguing story:

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Maija Palmer, with another one of those end-of-email articles, finds this intriguing story:

Andy Mulholland, chief technology officer at Capgemini, says email works poorly for people working in unstructured roles, such as engineers solving IT problems. “Someone asks you a question you don’t know the answer to, so you send out emails to everyone you know. Out of 20 people, 19 have their time wasted and the 20th gives you half an answer,” he explains. Social networking, in this case, can give faster and better answers.

He cites a recent example where an engineer had an unusual problem with some Unix code. He posted the question on Yammer, and within two hours had an answer from someone in the company he didn’t know, in a department of the business he barely knew existed.

On its face, this doesn’t make a lot of sense. If you’re worried about wasting people’s time, why is it better to waste hundreds of employees’ time on Yammer than a couple of dozen over email? I think the answer to that question is the key to understanding the power of social networks.

The Yammer solution here is clearly superior for the person asking the question, in other words — but why is it superior for all the people reading and thinking about and maybe or maybe not answering it? After all, they spend much more time on this question, in aggregate, than any email cc list would.

But it’s voluntary time: Yammer is the kind of thing which fits neatly into whatever interstices one has in one’s day. It doesn’t ping at you and annoy you and distract you at inopportune moments.

Social networks are also supererogatory: they have none of the feeling of being forced to read and participate that comes with almost all corporate emails. Much of the current case against James Murdoch, for instance, is based on the idea that if he was emailed something, he must have known it. No one would dream of making the case that if some fact was revealed on a Yammer board, and Murdoch had access to it on Yammer, then he must have known that fact.

Related to that is what you might call lurkability: you can spend as much (or as little) time as you like on these boards, learning about anything you’re interested in, without being formally copied-in on anything. Something which might be a waste of time to you can be useful and valuable to me — and social networks are a great way of giving people access to the stuff they find valuable, without anybody having to second-guess what it is they want to know.

Finally, if and when you do choose to participate, you get to do so in public. The engineer who answered that question got noticed, in a good way, and no one else took credit for what he said or tried to hide his participation in the process. No space is entirely free of office politics, but social networks, because they’re public, make such politicking rarer and less harmful when it does happen.

It’s also much easier to share information you find on a social network: worries that some piece of information might be confidential tend to be much smaller and much less important. As a result, such networks have much less friction than email does.

And anything which reduces the mounds of emails we all have to deal with every day has got to be a good thing. My work email account, in particular, is a nightmare: it’s 95% unsolicited PR pitches and 4% internal emails going out to enormous distribution lists which I have no interest in at all. Which means I have to go to a lot of effort to find the 1% of emails that I actually want to read. There’s got to be a better way.

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