Four Pillars: Does Social Software help Enterprises Dumb Down?

[As always, I could rely on Andrew McAfee to post something that made me think hard about things. Thank you Andrew.]

As far as I can make out, enterprise immune systems tend to try and reject the implementation of social software on one or more of five grounds:

  • The McEnroe Defence. You cannot be serious. This isn’t work. It’s a waste of time. Just look at the terms used: blogs, wikis, chat, Really Simple Syndication. You’re paid to do hard work, do you think this is a holiday camp? Next you’ll be asking for massage parlours and pedicures and pool tables. Get real.
  • Ostrich-Head-Meets-Sand. I have enough trouble trying to manage my e-mail and voicemail, now you want me to look in more places for more things and spend more time doing that. What are you, some kind of sadist? Just make my e-mail work, will you? And leave me alone.
  • It’s All Rubbish Anyway. Just look at the crap that gets published and circulated. What’s the matter, suddenly you think everyone’s an expert? if you really think so, we don’t need you, do we? So go fire yourself and leave us real experts to get on with our jobs.
  • Say It Ain’t So, Clayton. Look, I just want what I already have to work faster, cheaper, better. What do you mean, Innovator’s Dilemma? I’ll give you Dilemma. Some of us have real jobs and don’t have time to read.
  • Where’s The Beef? So show me the ROI, get the business heads to sign up and commit, get the finance guys to vet independently, then do it. No tickee no payee.

Each of them merits a separate discussion. Nero Wolfe would probably just have said Pfui. But mere mortals like me need to understand the objections and find ways of overcoming them. The good thing is that the objections are there and open and visible; ironically, we tend to capture the objections in the conversations enabled by the social software being objected to. But that’s another matter.

Today I want to concentrate on the It’s All Rubbish Anyway objection, and its cater-cousins, Dumbing Down and Lowest Common Denominator.

My contention, similar to Andrew’s, is that particularly in enterprises, social software has the opposite effect. Rather than Dumb Down, it raises the Lowest Common Denominator.

My reasons?

1. To paraphrase Eric Raymond and Linus’s Law, given enough eyeballs all information-bugs are shallow. People have an incentive to correct things that are inaccurate or inadequate. The incentive is simple. Will it help them do their jobs better? Where I work, one of the first things I saw in the internal blogosphere was some sort of “worst intranet site” contest. That was Enterprise 2.0 cocking a snook at Content 1.0, and I am confident that something similar will come up for blogs and wiki entries. Sure we will have crap posted and entered, but when the crap is about something important, it gets corrected. Fast. And if it’s not important, who cares anyway? If a blog post falls and there isn’t anyone to hear it, does it make a sound?

The quality of the information and opinion posted will be sustained in direct proportion to the perceived putative value of the information or opinion.

Crap is created. It is rarely, if ever, co-created. Or even endorsed.

2. Social software allows us to make the information live, keep it up to date and relevant. The costs of maintenance are low, the burden of maintenance is shared. Go back to the Given Enough Eyeballs statement. If there aren’t enough eyeballs, then we should question whether there is a society in the first place rather than quibble about the value of the social software. Orchestras tend to be pretty poor when there’s just one guy trying to play all the instruments simultaneously. When I compare wiki usage to that of written manuals and policy documents, or to that of the traditional intranet, it isn’t even worth trying to make a case. Game over.

Good stuff lives. Crap dies.

3. The value of recommendations and ratings and collaborative filtering should not be underestimated either. You don’t have to get knee-deep in crap unless you particularly want to, in which case I’d suggest you have a different problem, nothing to do with social software…. although social software might help you find a solution. The collective intelligence and knowledge of the enterprise exposes itself most actively via the recommendation and collaborative filtering approaches. Stage one may well be Top Ten Lists or Star Posts or Most Read or whatever, but soon the recommendations kick in. And the eyeballs travel accordingly. As the boundaries between different disciplines continue to blur, expertise has new connotations. At least one of which is Trusted Advisor, Recommender-Worth-Listening-To.


4. While each subcommunity is characterised by having a core, a moderator, a 1000lb gorilla, don’t make the mistake of believing that this core is incredibly tiny and therefore easy to manipulate. Just not true. Opensource activity distributions operate. Something like for every 1000 observers and lurkers, we will have 80 activists and 20 hard-core editors. Twenty not one or two. Wikipedia has scaled, it has a thousand such people at the core. This is an incredibly powerful development in the context of guardians of quality.

5. It’s not just about the lowest-common-denominator being raised, there’s a long-tail effect as well. Enterprise implementations of social software are really not about a horde of people congregating and looking at one piece of crap. There’s a lot of uncommon denominators as well, and they’re not particularly low. I haven’t done the research, but I would guess that matching the population of viewers to the entries being viewed will have a long tail distribution. Small groups of people finding value in sharing and improving and co-creating small pockets of information, of little relevance to the world at large but incredibly important to the particular subcommunity. This did happen before, but the subcommunity was constrained by organisational structure and silo mentalities. The power we see now is in the lateral and viral nature of the subcommunities enabled by social software.


6. Finally, despite all this, there will still be some crap that doesn’t die, doesn’t atrophy, doesn’t get corrected or improved, yet is important. It’s called satire and irony, and is a critical part of the conversation. Crap is in the eye of the beholder.

There’s a lot we can learn about consumerisation and Generation M. But determining the value of social software to the enterprise by looking at the faeces of popular sites is zen koan-ish. Like looking at a reflection of the moon in a stagnant pond and believing it is the sun. Games and humour and satire are pretty normal ways of working out how new forms of communication work, how they can add value. But soon they grow up.

22 thoughts on “Four Pillars: Does Social Software help Enterprises Dumb Down?”

  1. various people have told me how awesome you are. now i am enjoying the blog. fancy a pint sometime? i am based in the city of London, near Liverpool street.

    Emergence, cluetrain, and OSS are touchstones for my analyst firm RedMonk too.

  2. Nice article. First you describe the (auto-)immune reaction of the enterprise immune system and then the immune system of social software (which is not immune to auto-immune reactions either). In fact you argue that when people use the “It’s all rubbish anyway” argument they prove that even more rubbish is spoken than published ;-).
    But I missed two things:
    1) Where in the enterprise reaction does the (usually hidden) argument belong that structured, sanctioned documents allow the control of information, certainty, one truth, while a wiki can simply branch another truth. Most people prefer certainty (packaged travel) to using their brain (individual travel).
    2) Arguing for the social software you mainly dwell on the quantitative eyeballs effect. I think the qualitative “relationship” effect (/Who/ endorsed something) is at least as important. Hypes (the madness of crowds) get started by people promoting something while relying on unreliable endorsements.

  3. Jurgen, let me take your second point first. It is what I tried to explain in point 3, perhaps not well enough. The recommendations and ratings effects from trusted relationships.

    Your first question is one I concern myself with a lot more. Part of what I seek to define via Four Pillars is a shift from deterministic to probabilistic in the context of enterprise information.

    There’s a bit of Emperor’s New Clothes about how enterprises manage information. The consumer of the information chooses to be ignorant of GIGO. So somehow (and this continues to puzzle me after 26 years in the industry) reports get sanctioned as “accurate” and “right” if they carry the right “form”. This was bad enough in the old days, but in the world of Excel….

    You say most people prefer certainty. I interpret that as most people are comfortable not pointing out the Emperor’s nudity.

    What that lands up doing is providing power to a narrow set of people, medieval priests and lawyers, with the power to publish and define reality. He who takes the minutes has power. He who publishes the minutes has absolute power. And he who publishes the figures is power itself. Crazy but true.

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  6. Very nice article.

    Just one comment. Both this post and McAfee’s very relevant piece paint a very clear concept of what “social software” and “enterprise 2.0” are. But, together with most of the web 2.0 commentariat, they make a list of tools that irk me a bit.

    Blogs are “emergent”, right. But the conversation with readers they spawn is quite directed: in the end, the authors become a new layer of direction.

    Wikis are “emergent”, more or less. But they are mostly task-oriented tools: they are set up to do a very particular thing among a team.

    RSS is all very well, but it’s just an enabler for content detection and mapping systems.

    Folksonomies and tags, now there you have really emergent meaning (not content).

    But I miss some of the tools that have been around for longer. I’m especially thinking about modern web forums, where conversations emerge, opinions get aired and corrected, continuously aggregated content is kept up to date, relevant posts get reccomended, valuable users get recognition, new threads and messages are published by RSS. You could even argue that segmentation by themed subforums is a form of tagging.

    Forums allow for wider and easier participation, freer emergence of issues and even more dynamically updated content. They are very frequently in the drawing board (more rarely in operation) within intranets.

    Where (if at all) do they, in your opinion, fit in the Enterprise 2.0 picture?

    Best regards,


  7. Hi Miguel, sorry for taking this long to reply. I needed to think about it. And unfortunately I haven’t made much headway.

    My gut feel? Bulletin boards could have been wikis.

    For some reason, bulletin boards stayed in a freeze-frame, kept a geeky look and feel, made the production and consumption models harder than necessary.

    Early wikis were nothing more than opensource constructs for people to put up bulletin boards easily and simply. Then, as time went on, WYSIWIG was added, search was added, syndication was added.

    Today’s wiki is still a bulletin board, but richer and more open. And maybe some of today’s bulletin boards are wikis in all but name.

    Some of the threaded discussions have moved to IM channels; some of the more conversational “provisional” posts have gone to the blogosphere; workflow went to the wiki.

    I’m not quite sure why you say wikis are task-oriented tools. Is Wikipedia a task-oriented tool? Many wikis allow a back page where something that looks very much like the old bulletin board continues to exist.

    As I said, I’m not sure, I think I’m missing something in your question, so I need to think about it.

  8. I miss the threading we used to have in Usenet, CompuServe and other bulletin boards. Threading means you have to have a subject line for your post and we don’t do that any more apart from in emails.

    It made longer conversations possible within a single channel. You could return to a conversation after a long period and the thread gave your post a context.

    Maybe this could be done with tags, but there isn’t a client I know of that can emulate this UI feature.

  9. Dom, you should be at Headingley!
    Your point endorses some of what Miguel Cornejo stated earlier.

    Maybe we need a Short Bets site, where people put down things that will happen quickly.

    If threading and subject/title/tag and related bulletin board facilities are important, then they will be added to the social software constructs we have today.

    The market will do that. If the market perceives it is a good thing.

    Democratised innovation, open standards and web infrastructure, when taken together, mean that the barriers to entry for adding functionality are lower. If people want it they will build it. Whatever it is.

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  11. Hi again,

    thanks for the answer.

    Wikis and boards are different at least in one essential thing, as Dom points out: conversations. Boards are designed to support multiple concurrent conversations in a persistent way. Wikis (such as wikipedia) need to enable board-alikes when they have to discuss something.

    Of course you can discuss in blogs, or even on IM. But blog discussions are centered around the blog articles, and much less agile. IM makes an even bigger mess of handling large numbers of separate conversations, and does not leave easily accessible record (so is much harder to consult and reuse).

    About my comment that wikis are generally project-oriented :-). As far as I’ve seen, more than 90% of them are devoted to documenting progress in a project or co-write a particular paper. Among the 10% that aren’t, very few indeed are healthy. Then there’s wikipedia, the apparent exception… which is indeed bent on a project: writing an encyclopedia.

    Concerning WYSIWYG, easy user interfaces, et al… most modern boards are as easy to use as blogs, and far more than wikis (and email lists are the epitome of familiar use).

    They are not (this may be a key difference) so easy to set up and get running; they sometimes need a technical component that most blogs do no longer need. And then… there’s the social component. You can set up a blog on your own. You can set up a wiki with three coworkers. But what’s the sense in a bulletin board unless you have several score people interested?

    Food for thought :-). Best regards,


  12. Re. Headingley: I am not there because Sam, who is a member of Yorkshire, forgot to book tickets. This is causing some marital tension at the moment :-)

    For the Generation M readers of this blog, here is Inzamam-ul-Haq’s hilarious dismissal in the first innings: Inzamam hit wicket

    Mota aloo indeed!

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  14. Interesting perspective. The one piece I didn’t see was the acceptance of the users. I am working with a corporation who still has an issue with getting people to use a computer in the first place. If they don’t even want to use email, are they going to adopt a social software?

  15. You touch on a frustrating problem. But on reading your list of defenses (all of which I have met) I am struck by by the fact that these are all symptoms of the enterprise’s immune system reaction.

    It is the cause of that immune reaction which is interesting. Companies tend to create closed systems that minimise communication with the outside world. Social networking breaks down these barriers, admitting the outside world, a deeply unsettling experience so corporations automatically erect barriers and rationalisations, as your list shows.

    Why then do they create closed systems? I put it down to our attention horizon. To manage complexity we shrink our attention horizon as far as possible. This tends to settle on corporate boundaries. Once that happens our energy and values become focussed on mintaining the internal workings of the corporation and the outside world, in particular the customer, becomes an unwelcome distraction.

    Once the attention horizon has become formalised another phenomena comes into play. Information swamps develop around the corporate boundaries. These swamps delay, distort and even halt the flow of information into the company.

    Now some brave soul asks the busy corporate executive to shift his attention boundary beyond its comfortable confines and even suggests that he wade through the information swamp!

    Fat chance.

Let me know what you think