Email, Social Media at Work, and The Next Big Thing

Where is it all going?

Where is it all going?

Recently, on CBC Spark, host Nora Young interviewed Luis Suarez about quitting email at work.  You can also see Suarez’s Web 2.0 Expo talk at Youtube.  It got me thinking about the role of software in our lives – especially in our work lives, and that regardless of how many new applications and systems are popping up, we’re still missing the Next Big Thing – maybe.Suarez’s thesis is that email is not the right tool for the job of maintaining a healthy but non-obsessive level of productivity.  He works at IBM, in their social computing area, so he has both the mandate and the smarts to talk intelligently on this.  The short version of what I understood from his interview is:

  • Email is being abused as a generic tool; as a result, one’s productivity drops.  This is entirely a reasonable proposition, but I’m taking it on faith here.  Suarez’s experience constitutes a single data point, and it seems that his background work is mostly anecdotal.  I’d really rather see some hard data on the ineffectiveness of email.  Still, I’ll let him run with it, for now.
  • He took the time to look at the kinds of emails he receives, and to find alternative software for dealing with them better.
  • A combination of other tools, like blogs, wikis, microblogs like Twitter (or Yammer, which is an enterprise microblogging site), and so on, can be just as effective but also more efficient than just using email.
  • Ignoring emails, but responding to requests made with other tools, will condition other users to move to those other tools. (Does the name Pavlov ring a bell?)
  • Investing time in helping colleagues learn to use non-email tools ends up freeing more time later for oneself.

Basically, he’s designed his own combination of productivity tools to largely replace email.  He’s also designed his own process that he can pass on to others to improve their productivity.  This is a pretty good idea. But there are two pretty big problems.

First, most people have neither the time nor the expertise to do what Suarez has done.  Everyone treats email in their own special way.  The specific tricks that worked for Suarez will only work for a relatively small number of other people.  The rest of us would have to follow his process to come up with a scheme that works best for us.  That means setting aside enough time to carefully study our own in-boxes to discover what’s really going on, and then learn enough about a bunch of different alternative tools to choose wisely between them, and then use only a few of for any length of time.

This is a pretty big personal investment.  Most of us (myself included) really can’t afford to take that much time “off” from what we do.  Suarez is a social computing guru – so it’s more or less his job to do this sort of thing anyways.  But the rest of us can’t book time against this kind of activity.

There’s another aspect too, that’s going to make matters worse.  The tools we might consider will change.  As new functionality is added to applications, we will sometimes need to re-evaluate our use of one tool or another – and sometimes migrate to a better platform.  This is not something one should do lightly.  I switched to Gmail months ago, and I’m still getting used to it.  If I had to migrate again – well, let’s just say there’d be a lot of late nights, lack of sleep, and general cussing – more than I really want to put up with – and that’s just for email.

The second problem is that if one moves from a single tool, like email, to a collection of tools, then one must put up with several different interfaces, more windows, more mousing around, more everything.  Email, though imperfect for many things, is a single, unified thing in a single window, with a single interface….  We can quickly get so used to its interface that it becomes utterly second nature to us.  That kind of comfort is not something that one gives up willingly.

Here we have another imbalance.  On the one hand, there’s all these cool tools we could use to be more productive.  On the other, we have a discouragingly steep learning curve to get used to them, choose them, keep up with advancements in them, and make the time to help others learn them.

I think that whatever product can address this imbalance is going to be The Next Big Thing.  Well, maybe not the thing, but certainly a thing.  We need an aggregation system that can bring together all those tools with some kind of uniformity, that we can customize quickly and trivially to suit whatever tools we discover we need.  It must be highly malleable – it must change smoothly to support anything we need from any other service – Twitter, a wiki, a blog, a discussion forum, email… whatever.  It needs to provide a uniform user experience – to get rid of having to learn a gaggle of different interfaces – while supporting all kinds of services on the inside.

We’ve learnt from (a) the dismal failure of Microsoft Windoze and (b) the startling success of could computing that monolithic software systems just don’t work.  Monolithic software results in code elements that are highly dependent on other code elements, while distinctly separate programs that work cooperatively have far more limited dependencies.  This means a bug in monolithic software has more far-reaching events than a comparable bug in non-monolithic software (like Linux-based systems).  I remember once seeing a rough equation relating number of bugs to size of program (measured as function points); the growth of bugs was exponential with respect to size.  (Sorry, I have no idea when or where I saw that equation, except that it was in some publication of the IEEE.)

This means we can’t possibly expect The Next Big Thing to be a monolithic app that supports every function that we currently get from email, blogs, wikis, forums, microblogs, etc.  It will, instead, have to be a “front-end” that provides a common user experience only, and that uses web-based services to access off-site functions provided by other parties.

Some attempts have been made with web gadgets and widgets that can be aggregated in start-pages.  The problem here is that the widgets and gadgets all have their own interfaces.  So even you can bundle a dozen different tools together on a single browser page thanks to a start-page service like pageflakes or netvibes, you’ll also have to learn a dozen different ways of using things.

Even worse, there’s no guarantee that the widgets will talk sense to each other, except by using you as an intermediary.  That is, though the widgets are all there side by side, you won’t be able to expect one widget to interact intelligently with the widget right beside it.  That means lots of cutting and pasting between widgets, and keeping your eye on different information streams all vying for (and therefore distracting) your attention rather than working together to give you what you need.

Still, widgets and start-pages are a step above having a dozen different tools that are totally separate.  They’re early lifeforms in the evolution of Something Really Useful.

I think that evolution is about to take a pretty big step forward, and it’s called Google Wave.  While it’s not yet available for general consumption, the videos that have been made available sure make it look interesting.  A wave is a dynamic stream of information flowing between participants; the stream can end up taking the shape of a series of microblog entries, an online discussion, a collaboratively created document, an asynchronous discussion (i.e. an email conversation), or a variety of other things. And it all runs in your browser.

Google has created a user experience for a wave, which means we have a common experience for all the things for which we can use a wave.  There’s our common interface component.

Google has also opened up the back end of things, to let 3rd parties provide extensions (rather like web gadgets) and robots (which can be as powerful as “artificial participants” in waves).  This means there’s the potential to plug nearly anything into a wave from the back end, so that it all looks the same from the front end.  You can even embed a wave into your own web app.

The more I think about Wave, the more I think it has the potential to change the way the web is used in a very fundamental way.  I have lots of questions too, of course.  For instance, how compatible is the concept of a wave with things I already know about – like a blog entry?  Will there be a way to blend tags and social bookmarking into Wave so that I can, for example, see which of my Diigo or Delicious tags pertain to whatever wave I’m following?  And since I believe strongly in making knowledge free, how easy will it be to make waves public? (There’s some hints that it won’t be that easy.)

Still, the evolutionary step is important.  As things have been, start-pages collected things that had their own user experiences.  With Wave, the separation is more between interface and service.  This is, I believe, as it should be.  Companies can still compete either by providing new interface elements, or by providing new services.  New interfaces will be useful to provide a variety of user experiences.  For instance, I’m largely a visual thinker, so if my interface were highly diagrammatic, I’d probably be more productive.  Other users might prefer more text-oriented interfaces and experiences.  There should be room for a relatively rich variety of user experiences.  Users will win, though, because they can now ensure that most if not all of their functionality is provided to them by an entirely homogeneous – and therefore more productive – user experience that’s tailored to their personal preferences.

Of course, if precedence has any truth to it, Wave will be in “beta” for quite some time, and we can probably expect a careful expansion of its abilities over time.  We can also expect lots and lots of extensions and robots to emerge over the next year or two.  So it will take some time before Wave holds still enough that we can get a really good look at it from a productivity point of view.

And not that Wave is the only game in town either.  In short order, I found two other services that smack of wave-iness: colayer and shareview.  Shareview is particularly similar to Wave, as near as I can tell, but a commercial effort rather than utterly open as Wave is.  So there will be other players in re-inventing email, which makes things even less predictable for now.

In the end, it’ll depend on us.  Having invested so much time in adapting to so many user interfaces on so many classes of tools, will we find a single interface good enough?  I know I will.  But will everyone else?  I hope so.

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