Last week, Meta launched its anticipated Threads platform, a Twitter-esque experience, linked to your Instagram account.  Ever an early adopter of social media, I signed up, and immediately got a wave of nostalgia from 15 years ago joining Twitter for the first time.

Back then, it felt like you were chatting with a network of small curated groups of like-minded pals (and Stephen Fry), over topics as diverse and interesting as the people themselves. My growing Twitter habit meant I was the first to alert the CIO of my first job in real-time as news of the unrest in the London riots of 2011 spread to Croydon, where our IT infrastructure was based.

I came across Post*Shift for the first time via mutual contacts on Twitter, and I even haphazardly arranged the first date with my now husband via a 140 character limit. Blurring the personal, the professional, global news and close circle updates, it really seemed to be the best of all worlds.

But that utopia couldn’t last, and probably never really existed in the first place. The Verge lamented last week on the end of this social era, wondering where we were all supposed to go now, but I think the point is we aren’t all supposed to go any one place.

As Noah Smith put it in his insightful analysis of recent internet history:

“Slowly, people seemed to be rediscovering the truth that the old internet had taught us — that discussions work better when you can pick and choose who you’re talking to.”

As we know now, putting the world in a single “town square” with too little, too late moderation meant it evolved into a continual firehose of toxic sludge. Fuelled by secretive algorithms, bots and twitter mob polarity and devoid of any productive utility, we were a million miles away from its early promise of connection and community. In this environment, Noah’s argument for the fragmentation of the internet as the next paradigm shift makes a lot of sense, particularly when you look, as he does, at how the next generation of internet users are interacting. Conspicuously absent on the big platforms like Facebook and Twitter, they spend most of their time connecting on smaller platforms that optimise for group interactions rather than public debate.

“What these rising apps and platforms all share is fragmentation. Whether it’s intentional self-sorting into like-minded or community-moderated groups, or the natural fragmentation that comes from a bunch of different people watching their own algorithmically curated video feeds, these apps all have a way of separating people based on who they want to talk to and what they want to be exposed to.”

What does this mean for ‘social’ in the enterprise?

Whilst social technology inside the organisation doesn’t suffer all of these issues – after all, there’s nothing like being visible to people who pay you to keep your behaviour civil – there is some overlap. Cal Newport has long been pointing out the issues with social tech in the organisation being used as “a dystopian micro-twitterverse” inside orgs. There is too much noise – too many notifications that become meaningless, too many meetings that should have been.. (more noise..?), and almost no common agreement of which tool to use for what purpose. With a lack of shared norms on this, a little bit of everything ends up across an array of tools.

Most of our daily interactions on the digital workplace have turned into hours of firefighting surface level channel chats, DMs, video-call or email interactions across disparate social tools, replacing real work. And as an added layer of distraction, return to the office mandates dictate that we need to spend time worrying about co-ordinating everyone’s Taekwondo days, lest we miss out on important face-to-face collaboration (aka lunch). Against this backdrop is it any wonder many are quick to write off hybrid work models? When did social tech get so ..anti-social?

What’s the answer?

As ever the problem isn’t the technology itself, but how it is being used. We reference Erin Casali’s Three Speeds of Collaboration model often in our conversations with companies, because it is such a useful framework to think about how to use social technology tools in the workplace. The crux of the model is that organisations should have provision for digital workplace tools that enable work across three speeds – real-time (present at the same time), asynchronous (present at different times) and passive (discoverable at a later time) – and three levels of intimacy or scale.

The pandemic necessitated going all-in on real-time collaboration tools (Zoom, Slack, Teams), and we’ve always had some form of passive information storage, but asynchronous working remains the most under-used and under-rated form of collaboration.

We teach these and other techniques related to being present and useful in the digital workplace to business leaders and executives at every level, and the results are very encouraging indeed. Being a successful, influential and supportive leader within the internal digital realm of an organisation is quite the superpower.

Even at the largest level of scale, corresponding to the lowest level of intimacy, including the largest organisations, we are talking about a bounded community, governed by contracts and etiquette, where people have a least a minimum bond of common purpose. So perhaps, as we have been quietly mumbling throughout the rise and fall of ad-tech driven massive social platforms, the real value of social networking, knowledge sharing and conversation is to be found within bounded, purposeful communities rather than the wild open wastelands of blue-tick twitter et al.

Building a discipline of documenting relentlessly is really the standard we should be aiming for across organisations if we are to save ourselves from the digital workplace noise we’ve created. It creates a shared, living memory of organisational knowledge for current and future reference. Instead of requiring a meeting to present your ideas, documenting work long-form allows people to get the same information at a time that suits them to formulate a considered response, rather than reacting in the moment. Instead of a weeks-long email or chat back-and-forth, trying to find the background to a project, take a look at a simple wiki page outlining what happened along the way. Giles Turnbull gave a fantastic talk at the recent Agile in the City event on the importance of documenting the story of the organisation, with some compelling real-world examples.

Not only is incorporating asynchronous practices more respectful of others time and energy, but it often leads to better outcomes as there is time to think more deeply before moving to real-time collaboration. Leaders have an opportunity to change the expectation that everything must be decided in a meeting with a deck. Jeff Bezos is famous for changing this at Amazon, banning PowerPoint decks in favour of briefing memos sent ahead of any discussions. This simple switching across collaboration modes isn’t hard, but it does require active consideration and a change in mindset.

It may seem easier to stick with teams producing continuous digestible decks to save your time, but that time-saving is a false economy and a choice that is actively harming the rest of the organisation. We have the ability to do something concrete to reduce the noise, enrich the digital workplace experience, and create the time for our people focus on their real work again. What’s stopping us from taking it?

Main photo by Prateek Katyal on Unsplash