Freedom is Still Overrated, but Technology Can Fix It

My last post about Twitter for the enterprise (or ‘EnTwitter’ as I called it) generated some rather pointed responses. I highlighted the fact that Twitter users currently have to accept all tweets from all people that are of interest to them. I said that a problem arises when you decide to follow someone on Twitter because you’re interested in their thoughts / views on social software (for example), but 90% of their tweets are about little Timmy’s soccer practice, the new Mexican place that just opened up in their part of Cincinnati, the sort of weird day they’re having, whatever new celebrity baby was just born, and other things that are of no real interest to this crabby single northeasterner.

I proposed norms and policies as a feasible solution within the enterprise to this (as I saw it) problem, and was accused with varying levels of politeness of being an oppressive fascist. As I read through the comments on my blog and other responses, I was reminded of the peasant Dennis’s assertion in Monty Python and the Holy Grail that King Arthur was "hanging on to outdated imperialist dogma which perpetuates the economic and social differences in our society" and his cry to passers-by: "Did you see him repressing me? You saw him, Didn’t you?" (I’m a little astonished that after writing this blog for over two years this is only my second Monty Python quote. I assure you that it won’t be the last).

I exaggerate.  Here are some of the sharp comments responding to my previous post (I apologize for the formatting; can’t figure out what’s going on):


…with Twitter, I think it’s necessary to include the noise.

Twitter gives us a 360-degree view of our social community.  A (Twitter) friend said it best, “I was interviewed about my use of Twitter by our company recently.  Someone asked me if my posts were a little too personal.  I said, why? I’m a person.” (Abbie Lundberg, editor, CIO magazine.)

Through the connectedness of micro-blogging, we really get to know each other.  It dramatically condenses the time it takes to build a trust relationship.  The weak tie theory is predicated on trust and reliability. 

To enforce a strictly business policy on an “enTwitter” would handicap the tool’s most beneficial advantage: our ability to create real relationships vs. interfacing with business contacts.

Posted by Susan Scrupski  on  07/26  at  06:51 PM

While there is much social chatter we also trade ideas, articles, posts and make arrangements to connect elsewhere. I find twitter to be highly useful in that regard ( when it’s working, that is)

Again, I want to be clear. I LIKE the ‘ambient intimacy‘ that the new social software affords, and I LIKE the concepts of tweets and microblogs. Twitter is definitely an innovation that scratches an itch we didn’t know we had.

But I don’t think norms and policies are as bad as all that. I don’t think they necessarily kill self-expression, individuality, serendipity, or trust-building. Norms and policies are not equivalent to a corporate mandate like "no one may use our social software to reveal that they have a life or a personality."

But after more reflection it seems to me that norms and policies might not be the only ways to make a tool like Twitter work well for enterprise purposes. A relatively simple technical fix can also help here. If we just tweak the tweets, in other words, we can make a powerful and useful EnTwitter that overcomes the clutter problem while still letting people be as voluble as they’d like on all topics of interest to them. It’s closely related to sengseng’s idea of levels and spheres (see her comment above). 

Twitter currently lets users differentiate between standard public tweets, publicly-visible tweets that are replies to another user, and private replies (ones that are not visible to anyone except the recipient). They do so by prefacing their tweets with special characters: ‘@username‘ for public replies, and ‘d username’ for private ones (standard tweets have no prefacing characters). This is an elegant and lightweight way to differentiate among the three types of tweet; it lets users easily and quickly self-select which kind of message they’re sending.

However, users have no way at present to signal what their tweet is about — all tweets are assumed to be part of a user’s single, undifferentiated ‘lifestream.’ But as discussed above, one person’s lifestream is another’s clutter. If I’m not interested in most of what you’re twitting about, I quickly start to perceive your whole lifestream as clutter. At present there’s nothing you or I can do to affect that, short of you following my ideas, norms, or policies, and (as many commenters and the peasant Dennis wondered aloud) why should you have to do that? 

Another solution is to extend the idea of preface characters to include tags or categories of tweet. An ad agency could say, for example, that category ‘bj’ is for tweets related to the Belle Jolie account, ‘mk’ for Menken’s department store, and ‘aw’ for where the gang is meeting after work. Uncategorized tweets would wind up in one general stream. People using this organization’s EnTwitter would preface their tweets with something like ‘c bj’ or ‘c mk’ to categorize them, and users’ tweet-reading software would respect these categorizations. 

Under this scheme people could still tweet as often as they wanted about whatever they wanted. If they wanted to be noticed and to be helpful to their colleagues they’d categorize their tweets. So the ‘bj’ tweetstream would only contain thoughts about the Belle Jolie account, the ‘aw’ stream would be exclusively concerned with happy hour, etc. This would, I think, solve the clutter problem while not constraining people to limit their twittering in any way. If they habitually miscategorized their thoughts, they could be corrected, but short of this they’d be left alone and not burdened with excessive formal policies. 

This scheme would require some changes to the software used to receive and display tweets, but nothing too significant. And I think it would go a long way toward preserving the scarce resources in today’s knowledge work environments, which are time and and attention, and reducing clutter. It also preserves two of the great virtues of 2.0 tools and approaches, namely freedom of expression and self-organization. And it would probably calm down stodgy bosses, who would look at the ‘bj’ and ‘mk’ tweetstreams and see only work-related content there. I imagine they’d be a lot less likely to object to the presence of the ‘aw’ stream if the account-related ones were healthy and active.

Within organizations, technologies are always engaged in an interesting dance with social structures like norms and policies. What’s often underappreciated, though, is how that dance can be altered by features of the technology. EnTwitter with categories, for example, will play out very differently within most enterprises than EnTwitter without categories. Do you think it will play out better? Would adding lightweight categories keep users and their bosses happy? Leave a comment, please, and let us know what you think…