Google, Alphabet, or whatever Chef Boyardee-style nonsense they decide to call themselves in the future have thrown in the towel on an important technology warfront: the battle for social network dominance. As Google+ thrashes about in its deathbed, shedding off functionality such as Google Photos as standalone products, the plan (if there really is one) is that G+ will remain as some kind of social stream and that its core technology will live on as components for other products. Soon enough we’ll have the opportunity to answer an existential question: If a social network gets deleted off the server and there’s no one around to log in, does it make a sound? In the interim, I’ve committed a heinous, unspeakable act for which I previously would infer as requiring frigid temperatures in hell. Well here comes the cold front; I joined Facebook. But my suffering is not in vain -for there’s a larger lesson to be had for those attempting to build enterprise social networks.
As the fifth post in this series, we’ve had much to lament about continually struggling enterprise social networks. For instance, the obstacle in that enterprise social isn’t really a social network at all, at least not by the consumer expectation. Instead it’s a network that depends on decisions, and not socialization, at the very core of its foundation. We’ve also talked about how the right system will be adopted regardless of age or disposition, and that models designed for connecting people are virtually useless in connecting work product and decisions with a strong focus on history. Then there’s the socially-driven hurdle of curation, censorship, and defensive behaviors that might be useful in managing a social context but actually undermine efficient work collaboration. Finally, we have a regulatory maze to navigate. Measuring and classifying the continued relevancy and liability of information as a function of time is an especially difficult conundrum. The challenge increases as information becomes less structured under more complex relationships, departing from the linear, hierarchical information model that has been the mainstay of enterprise information architecture for so long.
So what have I discovered from my recent capitulation to the populist masses of Facebook? Moving from G+ to Facebook, I was taken aback in the disparity in participation between the two networks. Given the same content, what would be a trickle of interactivity on G+ was an avalanche on Facebook. Without that interaction, there simply is no social, and no network. This observation reinforces that strong networks are not necessarily buoyed by technology or experience, but simply mass and momentum. Such dynamics seem an impossible hurdle for enterprise social, in its current incarnations anyway, to tackle effectively. With respect to the future viability of enterprise social networks, further observations are more troubling still:
- First Mover Inertia: In startup circles we often talk about first and second mover advantage. First mover advantage involves pure innovation and seizing markets before anyone else realizes they exist. Arguably Uber is the current darling who has done well with first mover advantage, creating a market and business model where there was none, using their aggressive growth to remain dominant, and instigating and endless litany of copycats. Second mover advantage is more strategic, observing other entities in the marketplace and exploiting an existing market deficiency with focused precision and customer experience. Apple, as an example, is probably the most effective second mover on earth. In most industries either strategy can yield good results, depending on market conditions and the competitive players. But that’s just not true for social networks, which are heavily burdened with the collective inertia of first movers, namely the behemoth that is Facebook, making second-mover plays an exercise in futility. And guess what, Enterprise Social networks are way too late to the party, the cake’s been eaten and the magician has left the building.
- Network Competition and User Fatigue: Attending and participating in social networks takes time, and most seem to have the bandwidth to engage with one or two on a consistent basis. This presents a problem in that any new entrant must necessarily displace at least one network each individual is currently participating in. One might argue why an enterprise social network should worry about the inertia of something like Facebook, considering one network is for work and one is not. But such a neat divide is an anachronistic concept that no longer applies with today’s knowledge worker. Work blends into life which blends into work. What does that mean? People are on Facebook all of the time, especially at work. Consequently, they are not bothering to spend time on the enterprise equivalent, regardless of its utility for decision-based work and not ephemeral frivolity.
- Technology Is Irrelevant: This lesson is probably the most difficult to swallow and the most poignant in relation to Google+’s dismantling. Using Facebook, it’s very clear that as a technology platform, and from an architectural standpoint it is very much behind the times. The interface is labyrinthine and is starting to smell like many long-standing enterprise tools which buckle under the weight of endless bolt-on’s. Facebook is less flexible, less elegantly designed, and slower performing. But none of that matters. The inertia of the network carries it past any imperfections, and the technology is rendered irrelevant. This is especially troubling because creating networks that are more effective with work products will require totally new approaches and new ways of thinking.
So it should be rather plain right now that Facebook is eating the world. People want to leave it, but they simply can’t. Lots of upstarts appear to dethrone them, they languish for a while, and are crushed. The only meaningful exodus is younger people who are leaving, not necessarily for a better experience elsewhere, but merely to escape a system that ties them uncomfortably close to their parents. What does that mean for enterprise networks? Competing in this environment may not be an option. It may be high time to change strategy – turn to the Trojan horse approach perhaps. Integration encapsulated within a robust security model to slowly build the inertia necessary to ween users off Facebook altogether, without having to directly give up Facebook. Until it’s too late. That would require a system designed for both work and play that understands and can transparently enforce the needed boundaries between both. Sounds a little crazy, doesn’t it? Something to think about.