Freedom is Overrated

I’ve written a few times before about Facebook, and have recently started using Twitter (about which more later). I think these are fascinating, novel, and powerful technologies, but they’re also both vexing me a bit these days. 

Facebook presents me with lots of ads, and even more applications. My FB friends have installed lots of apps and used them to reach out to me. I now have 3 (lil) green patch requests, 2 buy your friends requests, and one valentine kiss request. I have no idea what any of these are. I also have invitations for status competitions, speed racing, mob wars, zombies AND zombie, starcraft, wikimoto, and "i’m a masher!," among many others. Again, I have no clue what most of these are invitations to, and I haven’t bothered to find out. They just sit on the right side of my Facebook home page, taking up valuable screen real estate that I’d prefer to use to build, maintain, and exploit my network of weak ties.

I’ve really enjoyed learning what Twitter is and how to use it, and so becoming part of the Twitterverse. It is an interesting and valuable place. But at the risk of sounding like the neighborhood grouch, I have to say that I’m not that interested in what people just had for lunch, are contemplating having for lunch, or wish they could have for lunch. I also don’t much care what’s on their car radios at any point, or how bad traffic is in their part of the world. And I find it a little creepy to be wished good morning via tweets by many people first thing each day (I guess I should just not check Twitter until I’ve had my coffee…).

I want to be clear: I’m not saying that people who have Facebook and Twitter preferences different than mine are wrong or weird or bad. And I know that I can exercise some level of control over both environments. But with these technologies at present, users must to some extent take the rough with the smooth. If I want to use Facebook I have to put up with ads and silly viral apps. And if I want to follow someone on Twitter I’ve got to accept all of their tweets, even if most of them strike me as clutter. 

Within an enterprise, however, the situation is very different. Ads can be eliminated, and application deployment can be controlled. And formal policies and informal norms can shape, if not dictate, what constitutes an acceptable contribution by a community member. I can easily imagine a boss saying "Gang, let’s not use EnTwitter (or whatever the enterprise version is called) to talk about how we felt about lunch. Let’s just use it to swap ideas on the Belle Jolie account." Because Twitter is largely a platform, compliance with this type of policy can easily be monitored. 

Intranet versions of social networking software will clearly be different from their Internet ancestors. In some ways, I think, they’ll actually be better, because they’ll be less full of superfluous stuff that annoys many people, but that can’t easily be turned off or filtered out. Enterprise equivalents of today’s Facebook and Twitter will probably be more bland, but they might also be more addictive. Knowledge workers might visit them more often throughout the day if they know that when they do they’ll find content, rather than clutter. 

Everyone agrees, I believe, that much of the value of the new social networking tools comes from the fact that they create and sustain large communities. Do they also have to let community members do whatever they want?  I don’t think so. Social tools that are overlaid with norms and policies, in other words enterprise social tools, can still be highly freeform and foster emergence. They can still be fun to use and highly useful for individuals, and also generate value for the group or the organization as a whole. 

Do you agree?  Or do you think that norms and policies will by their very nature suck the joy out of using these tools? Leave a comment, please, and let us know.