A blog about the new generation of work

Twitter’s place at work

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I’ve been thinking a lot lately about twitter because, well… that’s what twitter users inevitably end up doing. Twitter is almost infuriatingly great. Infuriating because it doesn’t make sense to anybody when they first discover it. Great because, once you take the leap and start using twitter, it fits into your life so damn well.

Trying to explain what twitter is to a non-techie person is damn near impossible. You end up sounding stupid: “It’s like a weird hybrid Blog/IM/Facebook/Chat program with an arbitrary character limit for every post. You should try it!” They probably won’t. But the thing about twitter is that, once you do start using it, it’s remarkably easy to become utterly obsessed with it.

It happens organically. You sign up for an account. Start following some people. Maybe it’s only something you check a couple of times a day. But, soon enough, it takes hold. And you can’t get away.

I think Tim Bray pretty well nailed twitter earlier this year, when he wrote this:

I think that with Twitter, something important is happening. But I’m having trouble figuring out what.

So here’s twitter: a web application that doesn’t sound very appealing, but whose users are often obsessive about it. An internet milestone that no one can really define.

Does it have a legitimate business use?

This is the question that I’ve been turning around in my head. There are a few places where twitter has already had a sizable impact at the business world. In tech and design circles, it’s become an inseparable part of the conference/trade show experience. Having a dedicated backchannel is incredibly useful, and makes networking a snap.

Further, I’ve seen some stories of people using twitter as a successful marketing tool. (Here’s a good rundown of one example.) It’s a way to directly interact with potential consumers, and join the conversation. If twitter does nothing else, that’s valuable in itself.

Still, though, I can’t help but feel like twitter is still mostly untapped potential for business users. In terms of marketing, communication, promotion and brand, twitter offers something that no other social networking app has been able to before.

Twitter versus Facebook

Brief digression time: A lot of markets are focused on Facebook right now. And Facebook is a huge resource, especially considering its market penetration. But I’d argue that twitter is far more potential-laden. The differences between twitter and facebook are pronounced, especially when it comes to features. (Facebook has a lot of features; twitter has none). But the important differences may seem minor: Facebook is a closed system, twitter is open. Facebook is still very passive (You don’t need to contribute a lot to enjoy it), twitter is active, and requires you to be outspoken. Facebook users are generally either netural or wary of the service, twitter users are passionate.

Small differences, but incredibly important.

What to do with twitter in your business today

If I could tell you exactly how to use twitter as a business tool right now, I’d be in an incredible position. I could make tons of money if I had those answers. But I don’t, unfortunately. The exciting thing about twitter is that it’s all still kind of uncharted territory for business.

I can tell you what NOT to do, though, if you want to experiment with twitter. First, DON’T create an account that is just a feed for your blog. (The only case where it’s okay to do this is if you’re very clear that this is all your twitter feed is. You probably need to have an enormously popular blog to do this.) DON’T go out and follow 1,000 top users you don’t have an interest in, then get mad when they don’t follow you in return. DON’T send messages from the guise of some disembodied ‘company’ — be a real person. And, finally, DON’T expect success overnight.

The last one is key. The thing about twitter is that it’s virtually no risk. It costs nothing to join. It’s very easy to use with no learning curve. And, unlike a blog, you really can’t spend a whole day working on a post. Just dive in. And have fun.

Photo by Carrot Creative. Licensed Under Creative Commons.

I like to read on the Internet

I haven’t been updating this blog lately for a variety of reasons. The first (and most important) is that it’s summer, and in the summer it’s important not to spend all your time trying to land on the front page of digg. In the summer; it’s important to relax.

The other big reason is that, with the time I do spend in front of my Macbook, I’d rather be reading insightful posts than trying to craft my own. Reading, I’d say, is about 95% of the reason I use the internet.

Yes, Viriginia, I do enjoy reading on the internet

Which brings me to what I really want to talk about. It’s something I’ve been seeing again and again from so-called ‘business leaders’ (who like to talk about ‘integrated verticals’ which, I think, breaks the record for two words who, together, mean absolutely nothing at all) who fancy themselves exports on the web. They claim that people do not read on the internet.

Not to single anybody out, since I came across this quote as the result of a random search, but take this article from masternewmedia.org titled Online Reading Habits: How much content do web audiences read?:

Though hard to believe for most, a recent research study shows that “on average, users will have time to read 28% of the words if they devote all of their time to reading. More realistically, users will read about 20% of the text on the average page.”

I don’t quibble with the result of the research, but what I do quibble with is the conclusion that’s often reached as a result. It’s the Pro Blogger mantra, calling ‘wordiness’ a sign, and recommending lite content, full of easy-to-digest lists and giant pictures. In essence, it’s calling for an almost-illiterate web.

I’m not an elitist. I like lists. I like pictures. I skim articles when I come across them. But I also, and I am going to bold this, like to read on the internet. I like reading long, interesting articles. I like encountering so-called “walls of text” when I know it’s subject matter written by a talented writer. Never have I encountered a post by Gruber or 37signals and thought “Damn, I wish this content was presented in the form of a Top-10 list.

I like to read on the internet. I like to read paragraphs on the internet. Maybe I’m not a large audience, or even a common audience, but I am an audience, and I hope that the talented writers out there, drowning in a sea of advice calling for short, easily-digestible, content-free writing on the internet, are aware that readers like me exist.

Postscript: What makes a good blog?

Man-about-town Merlin Mann has a post titled What makes a good blog?. It’s really good. The best bit:

Good blog posts are made of paragraphs. Blog posts are written, not defecated. They show some level of craft, thinking, and continuity beyond the word count mandated by the Owner of Your Plantation. If a blog has fixed limits on post minimums and maximums? It’s not a blog: it’s a website that hires writers. Which is fine. But, it’s not really a blog.

Exactly.

As we move through new generations, blogging is going to become a very common tactic for businesses. It works better than the traditional brochure-style website, because a blog creates a strong connection with the reader. It’s more like having a conversation than viewing a commercial. It gives your business personality. And personality on a corporate level is more important than ever. (Look at Apple versus Dell, as an example.)

But if we let blogs descend into a swamp of nothing but links, lists and funny pictures, we’re never going to get anywhere meaningful. To be honest, I’m a little concerned that maybe we’ve already passed that point of no return. But, hell, all I can really think to do that might help is say, proudly and over and over again, that I like to read on the internet.

Photo by rosefirering. Licensed under Creative Commons

Cat and Mouse

I’m just coming off a mini-vacation (more posts later this week, I promise) but I thought this was interesting. From the Something Awful forums, it’s a thread about how to avoid “getting in trouble” for reading web forums at work.

At my old job, I had my own office and there was zero IT oversight. My new job has me in a cubicle–at least my screen isn’t facing outwards, but I still have little warning when someone will walk up to me (but at least I’m fast with Alt-Tab). I made friends with the IT guys, who basically said, “Don’t give us a reason to check your browser activity, and we won’t do it. We have better things to do.” So for the time being, looks like things are safe.

There’s also discussion in the thread about writing a browser plug-in that will insert random “business-looking” graphs and buzzwords into internet pages to make everything look work-related.

I still struggle to understand why this seemingly never-ending game of cat-and-mouse is worth it.

Stop banning Facebook at work: Multitasking is here to stay

Jonathan M Gitlin at Ars Technica has a good bit about the supposed evils of multitasking on your computer at work:

The complaints against multitasking are the usual; you’re not as focused as you could be if you were just doing one thing at once, switching focus repeatedly actually makes you less productive as each time your brain takes a few moments to reprioritize tasks and so on.

I’m the first to admit that there’s a lot be said for shutting down everything else and focusing on a single task when you just need to power through and get something done, but these days talk of ‘multitasking’ seems to take the form of huffy managers cruising through the office, looking over shoulders and trying to catch a glimpse of someone looking at something “non-work-related”.

This, quite frankly, is a lame thing to do.

Gitlin again:

Employers seek ever-greater productivity from their workers, which means getting more work from them for the same amount of pay. Faced with that situation, it’s hardly surprising the cube-dweller responds by spending 15 minutes an hour looking at LOLCATs. Besides, I’m just old enough to remember the days before you used to be able to multitask; people used to sit at their desks reading the newspaper instead.

Technology has definitely exasperated this issue. It seems entirely acceptable for an employee to spend 10 minutes chatting with co-workers about the movie they saw on the weekend or 5 minutes on a personal phone call, but apparently just a glimpse at Facebook is an instant productivity killer. The message, I guess — and this is coming from those generally clueless about everything online — is that you can’t be working if you’re also on some website.

The real issue I have with this is one of trust. By constantly monitoring your employees’ screens, by installing filters and blocks, by blanket policies forbidding access at work, you’re essentially saying to your employees that you can’t trust them. “Why would you do this stupid work I’ve assigned you when you have fun internet things to look at?”

Could spending a lot of time on Facebook at work cause an employee to miss deadlines or produce sub-quality work? Absolutely. And those employees should face hell because of that. But you’re always smarter to criticize and (if necessary) discipline based on outputs, not process. The process is entirely subjective and unique to each person, whereas the outputs can be objective.

If the work is getting done, does it really matter if the worker is ‘multitasking’ all day, bouncing between windows and tasks like — as Gitlin puts it — a crack-smoking housefly?

Technology has led to a diversification of work styles.1 There is no ‘right’ way to get things done in the computer age. Trying to establish one-size-fits-all processes, policies or rules — even for something as seemingly frivolous as ‘banning Facebook’ — is a losing battle.

Thanks to Ari Najarian for pointing me to the article.

Photo by Vedlia. Licensed under Creative Commons

  1. I’m thinking of things like keyboard users vs. mouse; command line versus GUI; maximized versus juggled windows; open source versus Microsoft, etc etc. []

The Paradox of Technology with Generation Y

I spent a day this past week attending sessions on Generation Y in the workplace presented by Max Valiquette and Giselle Kovary. I’ve seen both speakers before, but they’re both entertaining and continue to evolve their presentations to include interesting points, so I was glad to spend the time to hear their messages again. Plus, all-day workshop are a very welcome respite from the day-to-day work sometimes.

Listening this time, though, I was struck with something that’s actually been rolling around in my head for a while. Whenever anybody talks about Generation Y these days, they mention technology.1 According to conventional wisdom, Generation Y loves technology. We love video games and cell phones and the internet and every gizmo, gadget or doowhacky under the sun. It is undoubtedly a very very ironclad part of our overall generational identity.

It’s not hard to find evidence. The Financial Post ran an article about the Ryerson Facebook incident (which I touched upon here) this week, and included a standard technology-is-everything piece in their explanation of Generation Y:

Confident, global -thinking and impatient, this generation of workers — approximately everyone born between 1982 and 1990 –does not know life without computers. It takes technology for granted, turning to e-mail, blogs and social-networking sites 24/7 to gather information and interact with colleagues and friends.

I’m not meaning to appear as contrary to this, because it totally does describe me. I’ve been a lifelong nerd, accessing the internet well before my teens and living a life largely based in three-letter acronyms for over a decade now (ICQ, IRC, AIM, WWW, FTP, HTML, CSS, JPG, BRB, LOL, ETC.) And the connectivity and virtual communication piece seems obvious: look at the explosion of popularity in any kind of online service that connects people with their friends.

But the paradox part of is that, for the last few years, I’ve spent a significant amount of time interviewing, hiring and working with other, younger members of Generation Y and throughout that time my questions to them about computers have yielded a fairly consistent statement:

“I’m not very good with computers”

This kills me, because it just seems so unbelievably wrong. We’re the COMPUTER GENERATION! How can you not be good with them? That’d be like a Gen Xer not being good at wearing flannel! Or a baby boomer not being great at complaining about everything! Or a traditionalist not being great at making babies!2

Plus, generally the same people making the claim that they’re not good with computers are the same people who spend their evening with seventeen instant messenger windows open while downloading tracks from Limewire and working on a term paper: “I’m not very good with computers, but often I use them for ten hours straight to do any number of tasks simultaneously.”

Trying to make sense of all of this

I’ve been trying to figure out why this disconnect exists, and I’ve come up with some potential explanations:

  • Pure Semantics: Refer to the idea of a Digital Native and think about cars for a second. I would never describe myself as “good with cars” but that has absolutely nothing to do with my ability actually operate a vehicle. I’ve got no real idea where the fuel lines are or even how to change a tire but I still do pretty good at driving to work a few times a week.

    Similarly, I think a lot of Gen Yers see themselves as “not good with computers” because they don’t know how to install RAM or put in a hard drive, but that doesn’t mean they’re not adept at using software and performing creative/administrative/organizational tasks on a computer.

    As so-called “digital natives”, we tend to speak and think differently about computers — more compartmentalized, specific to software, hardware and even individual programs — but Gen Y needs to be aware that, by and large, this isn’t how the older generations (read: the ones hiring you) think.

  • Confidence: Gen Y lacks a lot of confidence when it comes to some of their skills, particularly their computer skills. Again, if you think about it in terms of being a digital native, it’s easier to understand why this is.

    If you asked a native English speaker if they were “good at English” they’d likely reply that they weren’t, especially if they struggled with Shakespeare and hated James Joyce. On the flip side, though, if you asked a native English speaker if they were “good at Spanish”, they might answer in the affirmative even if all they know is how to ask where the bathroom is or how to get back to the cruise ship.

    One of the more difficult things you need to do when selling yourself to a potential employer is frame your skills in relation to their expectations, not yours. This goes beyond computers, but it is perhaps most important within the technology sphere. Just because you don’t feel like an expert at Photoshop, for example, because you don’t know how to work with Lab colours and multi-layer documents, doesn’t mean your potential employer won’t see you as “Photoshop expert” because you know how to do rudimentary tasks. It’s all context.

  • Education: This is a big one — almost too big to go into here — but to sum it up: everything they currently teach about computers and the internet in high schools is terrible and does more harm than good. The track in high schools has been, until very recently, to separate “computers” into its own once (or maybe twice) a week ghetto, where you learn how to type and not much else.

    As a result, I think a lot of people come to understand “computer skills” as separate from math skills, writing skills, artistic skills, communication skills, business skills, etc. When, in reality, a computer should be thought of has nothing more than a tool through which you exercise and develop these primary skills.

    As a first step toward providing real, valuable and much-needed education that fits into the ‘digital native’ sphere, schools NEED to start blending computer-use into every class, in a way that makes sense and isn’t just window dressing. (Letting the kids who finish their math problems first play on the computer is not, for example, a good way to handle this.)

But, then, I don’t know

I think there’s even more to this that I fully understand at this point, so I pose the questions back to the readers: have you ever claimed that you’re “not good with computers.” Why? How do you justify that to yourself? And is Generation Y’s much ballyhooed technological expertise a myth?

Photo by practicalowl. Licensed under Creative Commons

  1. In fact, I recently attended a session where a presenter summed Generation Y up thusly: Love technology, difficult to manage. Which, you know, I won’t dispute, but there’s a little more to it than that. []
  2. I’m kidding. Don’t get mad. []

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