E L S U A ~ A KM Blog by Luis Suarez

From the blog

Will Social Software Replace Email in an Enterprise 2.0 World?

Gran Canaria - Roque Nublo's SurroundingsNow that I have gotten off my chest that reflection on something I have been meaning to write about for a while now, I think it is time to move into the next one. Perhaps, in a follow-up blog post I will talk a little bit about which social networking sites have now been become part of my recently created and ongoing "black list". Facebook, LinkedIn and Slideshare are just three of them, but there are a few more. So I guess I will start putting together a table with those networking sites that, in my opinion, would need to get their act together, before I would come back to them.

But that’s the subject for another blog entry… For today I would like to reflect some more on something that has been bugging me for a couple of years and, which I think, is a good time now to share it and get it off my chest as well (You can see to what I dedicate part of my time during the holidays: think, rethink, ponder, ponder some more and finally share some of these crazy ideas out there. In this case in this blog).

You may have noticed how what I’m going to talk about (Expect a long blog post ahead, by the way, so you may want to grab a cup of coffee, or tea, sit down and read on!) dates back to around two years, more precisely a few weeks after I started this initiative of living "A World Without Email". Most of you know how I have been using social software for much longer, yet things changed when I kicked off that experiment. And time and time again people keep asking me how do I do it. How am I capable of giving up corporate email altogether and still do the stuff that I do on a daily basis.

Interestingly, plenty of people keep wondering how they could do it themselves as well, after having witnessed what I have been doing all along, and they continue to ask what would be some of the main challenges, issues, showstoppers, etc. etc. with the whole experiment itself, so they could overcome them and start walking away, slowly but steadily, from corporate email. And over the last few months I’ve come to the conclusion that the main obstacle there is out there hasn’t got anything to do with changing people’s habits, or provoking a cultural change, or trying to convince people there are better ways of collaborating and sharing knowledge out there.

It is actually a lot simpler, and perhaps even more upsetting, too! Remember that brilliant piece that Andy McAfee put together a couple of years ago under "The 9X Email Problem"? Well, it has got to do with it, and quite a bit! In that brilliant article Andy comes to highlight, amongst several other very interesting things, how the biggest challenge for social software to take over email and become the primary corporate collaboration and knowledge sharing tool is its simplicity, or the lack of.

We all know that sending and processing email is very easy, perhaps far too easy. It’s the tool that we have been relying on for the last few decades and it has evolved good enough in the direction that today it is an indispensable business related tool. There’s no reason to deny that. And, in fact, I’m not going to.

What I have noticed though, as I have been more and more involved with getting the most out of social software (versus corporate email), is that social software tools, in my opinion, are almost there: just as easy to use as email is. Everybody knows how easy it is to create a blog post, to edit a wiki page, to tag a Web resource, to bookmark a link, even to tweet. So what seems to be the problem then, you may be wondering, right?

Well, you are not going to believe this, but over the last few weeks I have been studying how I work and interact with social software tools on a daily basis and, to me, the biggest obstacle, the main challenge why social software is still going to take a long while to replace email altogether is no other than something we are all very familiar with: the Web browser.

Who would have thought about that, eh? The main issue I am seeing when interacting with social software tools is actually not the social tools themselves, but how I access them. You know the story, if you want to write an email to someone, you bring up your favorite email client in a second or two, you hit the magic keystroke combination to bring up a new memo and you start writing away and send it off. All of that in a matter of seconds. You know how it works.

The thing changes when you need to do something in one of your social networking tools and you need to go and access the Web. What do you do? You go and launch / switch to your favorite default browser (Internet Explorer, Firefox, Flock, Safari, Chrome, etc.), start loading the URL you’re interested in and start interacting with it. Now depending on the social software tool, depending on the Web browser you may be using at that time, or your network speeds (Even more, if you are travelling!), depending as well on how many other things you’re doing at the same time that relatively simple task may take from a couple of seconds to a whole bunch of them!

And that’s where the problem starts. Because, as I continue to rely more and more on those browsers, the overall user experience has deteriorated quite a bit for most of them, if not all of them!, to the point where opening a single page to start loading a Web site can take several seconds, and if you have multiple screens (multiple tabs) it will get worse. And worse! And much worse as you try to work your way through various multiple social networking tools!! To the point where you would realise you would have been much faster reaching out to that person through email (Versus whatever the social tool). And we are back again to square one! Email rules!

Now most of you know that for the last two and a half years I have been using, almost exclusively, a MacBook Pro as my main work machine. So from that list of browsers mentioned above you will need to scratch Chrome and Internet Explorer (No, I don’t have a virtual Windows machine running on the Mac. Never have, in case you are wondering…). Thus for my day to day work I have four Web browsers opened, at all times: Firefox, Flock, Safari and Opera (Which has remained, throughout the years, as my preferred default browser!). I’ve got all of them fine tuned to be top-notch web browsing experiences. Yet all of them, except one, keep failing miserably, time and time again, to get me the kind of response, as far as performance is concerned, as to what I usually get from my email client that I have been utilising for a few years.

And that’s not good. Because it basically means that email will "win" over and over for as long as those browsers don’t improve themselves against overall outstanding performance benchmarks. It’s got even to the point where I have almost given up on all of them (Except one! Hint, hint…) and instead of using and relying on them rather heavily I am noticing how I keep downloading the various different desktop applications to interact with those social tools. So I hardly use the Web browsers anymore for my own productivity. Instead I just use them to read Web resources.

All except one, like I just said: Opera, the one that rules them all and which, on the Mac, is a unique Web browsing experience! Even today! Too bad though most Web applications and other social tools don’t interact too well with such browser, probably just because it is not one of the popular / hyped ones (I know, a shame!). Talking about following Web Standards …

You would probably say I may have become, over the course of time, what some people would call a "Power Web Worker"; someone who spends a good chunk of his time (Probably 80% of his working time) on the Web, if not more! Remember, I don’t rely on email any longer! Instead, I rely on Web applications accessed through the browsers and continue to expect the same kind of response from those productivity tools, i.e. the browsers, as what you would expect from the various desktop applications we are used to, including our email clients. Yet they keep failing to deliver and, as you may have guessed, they keep adding further up on my frustration levels, something that, for instance, email clients haven’t done any longer for a long while now.

That’s definitely why Posterous has become incredibly popular at the moment, way beyond the hype. And, as you may have guessed, for a particular good reason; it is dead simple to use! It still allows you to share your knowledge and collaborate with other knowledge workers in an open, public and social space by bypassing the main issue that is stopping us all from adopting these social tools in the first place even more: The Web Browsers. I bet most of you folks have got your own war stories about your default Web browsers (Anyone care to share theirs?)

But how does Posterous do it? Well, using something that will still be with us for decades to come, not only because it just works, but also because it’s the easiest way of helping you stay productive: email, which is not the same thing I could say for all of those Web browsers, that will keep hindering your overall productivity due to their appalling performance, except for that one in the minority that I wish people would pay more attention to, because so far it’s the only one that can deliver a true Web browsing experience: fast, secure, reliable, stable, complete and straight to the point! Opera rules! And so does email (Through Posterous though)!

So imagine the possibilities of this newly born nifty combination between Opera, which happens to be an email client as well, and Posterous. Are you ready to experience the Web once again? Are you ready to leave behind the daily headaches, the increasing level of frustrations, behind your Web browser(s)? I surely am!

(Thanks for reading this long blog post directly from your favourite RSS / Atom feed reader… You just proved the point ;-))

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  1. Nice detailed post Luis.

    From my perspective, I think the issue can be defined as a problem with the total user experience and not the just the tool itself, otherwise, people wouldn’t be spending 24/7 browsing facebook. 😉

    Facebook makes it easy for the user to be able to load the site ‘fast’, has simple UI, and pushes everything in one space.

    What I really notice within social spaces is that a novice user is typically overwhelmed at the amount of noise vs signal. Being in too many places at once and not being able to keep up with it.

    Being able to have it all in one space (like you mentioned – a email client) really works.

    I know many people who live out of their web browsers and rely on cloud services to run their whole business operations. Infact, a client of mine is running her whole brokerage off a cloud app that I helped design.

    But if I were to ask her to setup a blog within WordPress or Connections, she would be lost as the user experience is not aligned with her expectations.

    Very nice post and definitely thought provoking.

    P.S. Looking forward to your social network ‘black-list’

  2. Luis- You are still too buried in the work of the web. I think many of the social tools are still far too hard, and it is not only an issue of visiting the website. Blogging, wikis, tagging, etc are NOT second nature for most people. There is a whole mental process around _participation_ that needs to be overcome, along with the user experience issue.

    Facebook helps overcome this barrier, but then it is closed within its own walls.

    I’ve always thought that web feeds (RSS, Atom) could be a way around this, but they haven’t been as exciting to the wider market because they are the plumbing rather than the attractive finish.

  3. Luis –

    Great points. But you left off an important group of browsers: the mobile browsers. The blackberry and to a lesser, but growing, extent the iPhone, are the most important communications within an organization. Email works great on them, but many web communication platforms do not.

    In the web 2.0 world, many platforms having taken this on challenge. Facebook works great on the iPhone and the blackberry. Twitter (of course) works well.

    But few Enterprise 2.0 tools do well on the mobile browsers. I know from first-hand experience that SharePoint 2007 was nearly inoperable on the BlackBerry. I can’t speak for the products from your company.

    Until Enterpise 2.0 bridges the mobility gap, they will not be able to effectively compete with email.

  4. I think Twitter and Facebook are treading new ground as there is starting to be a blur between what’s a status, message, link blog, chat, etc…When you can do lots of different communications from the one window it kind of becomes easy like email.

    In email, from the one window, I can decide to share a link, video, photo, converse, broadcast news, ask a question, etc….

    You are right the web browser is a fundamental barrier to entry. But what about desktop apps like Tweetdeck, etc…

    My hope is that these apps will become the new dashboard where I can see activity happening and respond to it. It’s easy access as it’s running on my desktop, and it will take me 2 seconds to bring it up to and post something.

    BUT, what if Outlook becomes a social network…It may resemble Facebook, but with a better private message feature (ie. email)http://blogs.msdn.com/outlook/archive/2009/11/18/announcing-the-outlook-social-connector.aspx

  5. @elsua I was amused at the closing paragraph on reading from a feed reader. I was talking with @minlii yesterday (for hours), and part of the time was spent on migrating from the Flock feed reader to RSSOwl. She installed RSSOwl while I watching on screen sharing, and I coached her through some of the fine points of the user interface (e.g. layout as vertical view, group by date).

    People who are comfortable with e-mail clients (as opposed to those who like webmail through a browser) may have to be educated to the benefits of a feed reader. I’m not sure that an e-mail client and a feed reader should be integrated into a single package, but people don’t seem to have any issue with the bundling of e-mail with calendaring … so maybe not.

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