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There’s no question that “Social Software” is the big push right now. I keep seeing advertisements and slogans that claim email isn’t “Social” enough and that the more you share the better. Users, however, seem to like email quite a bit and are proving extremely resistant to switching. Why is that?
I suggest that it’s a social problem. It’s true that it is human nature to work together to get a common result, and we’re at our best when collaborate. That isn’t the whole story, however. Humans do need collaboration, but we also need privacy. We work together, but we’re also competitive.
I believe the biggest problem with most of the current attempts at “Social Software” for business is that they push us to be more collaborative, more open, and more trusting than we’re comfortable with. There’s a terrific parallel with the video phone.
As early as the 1950’s, AT&T had proven that video calls were entirely possible. There were many test video phones built and there were plans to sell this service nationally. These phones never took off, and anyone who has ever done a video chat on the internet knows why. It’s all well and good if you can pick and choose who you allow to see you with the camera and when, but the idea of immediate unscheduled video chatting with our coworkers and clients leaves us very cold. It exposes us too much when we’re not ready to be exposed. It’s no longer about relaxing with our friends. It’s about exposing ourselves to our potential competitors, our detractors, people we have to work with but don’t necessarily trust.
When we collaborate today, using the traditional method of sending around documents by email or putting them on a shared file system when we’re ready, we remain in control over when our work is visible to others. Nobody gets to see the mistakes we fix as we edit the document prior to sending it out. Nobody sees how long it takes us to come up with the right phrasing. Nobody sees the rough draft, where we expose our opinions a bit more strongly than we want to reflect in the final draft.
When “Collaborative Software” starts getting into live, real-time, multi-person editing we give up all that control. We suddenly have the pressure of everyone watching what we type, seeing every backspace and misspelling, reading every sentence that we would otherwise end up deleting as too strong a few minutes later. Our potential competitors even see how long it takes us to come up with our work product. If our finished document can be considered our “public appearance”, then real time collaboration on that document is akin to standing naked before our peers without the benefit of clothing or cosmetics to change what we know about ourselves into what we desire others to know about us.
The same problem holds true with streams and scheduling. Where with email we can address our work in the time that makes sense to us, asynchronously applying ourselves based on when we’re ready to do work; streams and real time collaborative tools force us out of that protected cover, exposing us to ever more pressure to respond quickly but perfectly.
If “Social Software” is going to succeed, it is going to have to find a way to allow us to continue to be ourselves, complete with the flaws we all have. It’s going to have to respect our competitiveness, our desire to present the version of ourselves we want the world to see even if that doesn’t necessarily get reflected in the first draft.
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