On Facebook and wasting time

One of the commonest criticisms levelled at social software is that of wasting time. Wikis were whined at, blogs were barracked and now we have social networking sites (particularly Facebook) getting slammed.

Now I can understand the arguments about “too closed”. I can even understand the arguments about “too open”. What fascinates me is the number of people that take a different tack altogether….Facebook wastes time.

This takes me back a very long time, to the days when Visicalc and Wordstar and Storyboard were coming through, and corporate e-mail was just settling down. To the days before Microsoft Office, and the days soon after.

There were people playing with Visicalc, and they were followed by people who played with Excel. Digging around to find out how it worked, using it for all kinds of purposes. And all around them, people stood accusing. Accusing them of wasting time. Spreadsheets weren’t real work. they said.

Many years later, I had reason to audit many servers worth of Excel files at one particular institution. To my surprise, most of the files had nothing to do with “business”. Fantasy football and cricket teams. Tea and coffee rounds. Stock portfolios. Expense claims. Shopping lists. Lists and lists and lists and lists.

The spreadsheets per head ratio was in the region of 3000:1. Yes, you read that right. And over 80% of the spreadsheets had absolutely nothing to do with “work”.

But hey, it was Excel. So it must be legitimate. After all, whole businesses are run today on Excel, aren’t they?

I’ve seen the same thing happen with other so-called “productivity tools” or “end-user computing tools” or, more recently, “collaboration tools”. And the patterns are the same.

Phase 1: Bunch of people start playing with software. Nobody cares.

Phase 2: Large bunch of people start playing with software. Now everybody cares, and the Wasting Time card is played.

Phase 3: Slowly, more and more business uses emerge. But still no enterprise adoption. People get more proficient at using it, though.

Phase 4: Proficiency gets higher, enterprises begin adoption. Site licences emerge.

Phase 5: Users break up into three groups: SuperPower, Effective and Don’t Care.

Phase 6: New tools emerge. Play begins again.

or something like that anyway……

11 thoughts on “On Facebook and wasting time”

  1. JP, I think this is another case where we have to unpack the text into its underlying connotation. “Wasting time” is basically another way of saying “not doing what you’re supposed to be doing;” and it reveals two interesting aspects of workplace pathology. One is that, particularly with all the “knowledge technology” you have at your disposal, what you are “supposed to do,” does not take a lot of time, leaving you with time on your hands until the next thing you are “supposed to do” shows up (which is why you see so many screens with solitaire on them when you wander around the cubicles). The other is that you are in a workplace where you never have a particularly clear idea what you are supposed to be doing except when you are given a very specific task. I am not raising these examples to argue that we should go back to an assembly-line regimen but to demonstrate that, particularly where “knowledge work” is involved, just about any workplace you choose lacks even a vague sense of what constitutes normative behavior.

    I have now been in two settings where senior managers were virulently opposed to allowing staff to work at home, particularly on a computer. In the first the argument was that anyone with a computer at home will just use it to play games, and in the second the argument was that anyone claiming to be working at home might actually be out shopping. Neither argument had anything to do with “getting the job done,” because there was no normative characterization of what it MEANT to “get the job done!”

    Now when I encountered Excel, I thought it was a monster; but I was not afraid to play with it. Consistent with your audit, the first thing I did was to work out a way to keep track of expenses I could claim for a “side job” I had editing book reviews for a professional journal. In other words it was not related to the work behind my monthly paycheck. I got good enough at this sort of thing that, in my next job, I started to submit WORK-RELATED summaries of travel expenses in Excel. (As a matter of fact, I maintained my report on my laptop while I was on my trip, since that worked better that sorting out a jumble of receipts when I got back to my desk.) Not too long after I started doing this, our Accounting Department DEFINED a specific Excel format to be used in all future travel expense reports! In other words, by investing personal time in one job, I helped define normative behavior in the next one! Needless to say, I never felt I was “wasting time” in either setting!

    I think you are encountering the same problems of reasoning that you did when you first started writing about Facebook. Before musing about what people do with social software, look at what they do in the flesh-and-blood social world; and ask similar questions. Are you “wasting time” when you take your client to a karaoke bar? I know what the answer is for normative practices in Japan; but I have no idea whether or not BT (or any other non-Japanese business) has ever bothered to think about this as a question of normative practices. My point is that we cannot have discussions about uses of social software in the workplace without first establishing a foundation of the broader scope of work-based social practices; and, until businesses recognize this, no amount of phase-based reasoning is going to bring social software into the workplace!

  2. There are those who see discovery and exploration as a waste of time (they are often too goal oriented – target fixated to use the parlance of advanced motorcycle riding…) and those who trust that new value will emerge.
    Consider how some firms prevent their employees from even using google (for the same ‘waste of time’ reason.
    I posted about this a short while ago: http://fasterfuture.blogspot.com/2007/05/bosses-who-ban-out-of-touch-and-now-out.html

  3. Agree. But I think Stephen’s comments and David’s continuation are both valid. What one person deems a waste of time another may claim as immensely valuable, and we have to place it in the context of where and how value is generated.

    As von Braun said “Research is what I’m doing when I don’t know what I’m doing”

  4. It encourages me especially for my children’s future working lives to read that one of today’s working trends is that people in ordinary jobs with more responsibility for their own time, which represents more trust and more (to my mind) civilised employer-employee relationships.


    The main shift seems to be that people are being paid for their work instead of their time, in jobs where their work can be measured. My husband works at home (for IBM) over the net about half the week, but on specific projects, time is not an issue. Getting things done is.

    Although some people’s work involves a large amount of researching and creativity-building activities that may not obviously be part of a specific project, surely there is some way to observe their achievements other than whether their time was appropriately filled- otherwise it would be impossible for anyone’s career to be distinguished from anyone else’s. So not only is “time-wasting” impossible to define, it doesn’t matter. If someone is coming up with amazing ideas that are working, where they came from is nobody else’s business.

    Having said that, we all hate the feeling of wasting our own time- I think people naturally approach new environments like Facebook with a certain amount of scepticism, and feel a bit reluctant to get involved when they see how much work is required. But benefit involves risk. There seems to be a shift from investing money in our businesses etc towards investing time instead, on all levels.

  5. Jon, I can remember when IBM saw no reason to install an electronic mail system because “employees would only use it to complain about their managers.” Now they have built meeting spaces in Second Life! My guess is that, instead of worrying about what people say, management just arranges to monitor it all!

  6. Agreed – I was just trying to make the point that because people are deemed objectively to waste time (as in your excel audit) with a web 2.0 application, it is no justification to condemn that application. The weakness is the people not the availability of the potentially useful application.

  7. I found the Ajaxian account of Dvorak a better read than the original; but I think we have to be careful with that noun “value.” The bubble definition from Wikipedia cited by Ajaxian is based on a theoretical concept of “intrinsic value” from a paper published in 1993; and I am not sure how much of that theoretical perspective has endured the subsequent fifteen years. The think the last bubble burst because most of the players did not know how to set realistic price points, and that can certainly happen again in Web 2.0. You can only go so far putting a price on promises and expecting everyone else to pay that price!

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