Dec 172010

In the early years of the internet when it was still in its infancy and yet to capture the imagination of a significant section of the society, it was mostly used as a one way content distribution system. Websites were static and their content created by a small team so a larger group of users could access, but not modify it. However over time, the Internet evolved and slowly democratized itself. The content creation was passed more and more to users, and buzzwords like Social media, blogging, tweeting were born. Web 2.0 had finally arrived, and how!!

Wikipedia, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, WordPress were some of the great new tools which empowered users to eliminate geographical boundaries and connect in ways hitherto unimaginable. Blogging really took off in the first half of this decade. Suddenly, the common man had a voice, he could express dissent, criticism or his views of the world today. Previously what was restricted to a lazy chat between friends could be put forth to the whole world and this essentially changed media as we know it. But blogging hit a roadblock few years back, even though the number of blogs was large, it still weren’t quite the hit that Social media exponents were hoping for. One reason for that could have been the significant amount of time which needed to be invested to write a decent blog post. One needed to jot down his thoughts, organize them, articulate it nicely and edit it well enough to make the post crisp and enjoyable to the reader. The effort needed to do all this made regular blogging out of reach for many web users. Change however, was just around the corner.

On a fateful day in 2006, Twitter was launched. Initially called the SMS of the Internet, Twitter’s 140 character limit became a empowering tool rather than an impediment to content creation. Blogging Microblogging was far more easier and the medium exploded. From 400,000 tweets per quarter in 2007, it reached 50 million tweets per day in February this  year. Given Twitter’s unprecedented success, it was inevitable that the enterprise looked at it to be used as a collaboration tool on the Intranet. And thus, Enterprise Microblogging was born. I had the opportunity of being a part of two such social networks in my current and previous organizations (powered by Yammer and Socialcast) from their infancy to  relative maturity.  I’m no social media expert but I jotted down some of my random observations from a user’s perspective.

Growth Cycle:-

Like many software products and technologies, a user’s perception of Enterprise Microblogging also follows the hype cycle.

Most new users sign up to Microblogging via an invite from their colleagues. Those who dont have much experience in using twitter are usually bewildered by this new tool. Expectations are high thanks to that over-enthusiastic colleague who promised the world for signing up. But disillusionment quickly sets in, for many users there is too much of wildly varying content to make any sense out of. They send out a couple of messages, maybe like a few posts but thats just about it.  Not many users are patient enough to ride out the disillusionment phase to actually start deriving value out of the system. The user retention is quite low in enterprise networks and according to my rough estimates only about 30-40% users are active in the system.

The Champion

Though social networks are touted to grow horizontally without the need of any central direction, I have observed the opposite in Enterprise Microblogging. People adapt to the network much faster if there is someone who quickly welcomes new users, understands their interests and introduces them to like minded people, routes queries to individuals/groups who can answer them faster. Maybe in a mature network, this function could be taken over by a group of power users. But those that are still growing, require an individual who can be the champion. In my previous organization I observed the quality of the network content going down considerably when the champion scaled down his participation and no one else took over.

Signal to Noise ratio

Image courtesy

The public timeline/ Home Stream is the holy grail of user experience in any social network. Facebook took this serious enough to patent its NewsFeed feature to decide which friends’ updates appear on your news feed.  If our close friends updates appear on the news feed, then the chance of responding becomes much higher. In the absence of a personal connection on microblogging sites, this translates into users whose updates would be interesting to us. It could be determined by similarity in content, common connections etc. Nothing would confuse a new user more than completely random content which is not in the least bit appealing.

Groups, Communities and Networks

Continuing with my previous point about the Signal to Noise ratio, the content in the Home Stream is often too amorphous to be of interest to a newbie. Here is where Groups or Communities help in the Microblogging network. When like minded people come together, the content they create is more likely to be homogeneous and easier for a person to relate too. In Yammer I saw that some groups had more posts and replies than the general stream itself. Socialcast also has a great feature which allows users to tag the post to a group in the comment even if the original author misses to do so. This is where power users and the Champion can contribute to the network by making sure all content is properly categorized according to the groups in which it belongs.

Will Microblogging kill email?

Microblogging has as much chance of killing email as Google docs has of replacing MS Office. Regardless of the merits or demerits of the two platforms, the adoption of one at the cost of the other requires a fundamental shift in the thinking of the users – not too dissimilar from the time when typewriters gave way to computers. Whether users will be willing to make that quantum leap and ditch email entirely, only time will tell. However it is not deniable that Microblogging would eventually reduce the amount of email being sent in the organization. Organization wide updates which are cascaded to a large group of users would be far easier through social media than conventional email.

Knowledge Management Tool?

Knowledge Management in today’s organizations are not restricted to churning out thousands of documents and then taking pride in number of documents we have in our knowledge repository. To be of any real value, the more useful resources must be separated from the ordinary Copy-paste jobs from the internet. Microblogging provides us a measurable mechanism to gauge the response of the community towards any particular content posted in the form of the replies / likes it receives. Documents which elicit larger response are more likely to be of use. Also since its all text based, all of the content is indexable and searchable from various other point of access like Intranet Portals, Sharepoint sites etc.

Democratizing the Organization

Even though almost all the higher management if any company works with an open-door policy, in practice the direct communication between employees engaged in actual operations and the management team is quite rare, and mostly in scenarios with set agenda and little room for a free discussion. Microblogging gives every employee the chance to put forth his direct questions to the management team. Frank opinions and suggestions can be given on the strategy of the company.

Tagging and Trending

This one’s a no-brainer. Hashtags allow us to categorize information according to topic and makes it easily searchable later. Trends give us a picture of the so called hot topics being discussed at the very moment. However though trends are suited for a large user base like Twitter, microblogging networks have far less users and this feature isn’t used that much.