Streams, Flows and Documents

What makes a communication tool “Social”? [tweetmeme source=”Marcio_saito” only_single=false]

In the recent Social Business Edge, a conference in New York discussing Social Business, Stowe Boyd said “In the future, we will be spending less time on pages and more time in flows”.  Let’s explore that idea.

When it comes to the medium, the difference between social and non-social tools is very simple, tangible and specific. It is the communication protocol.

Traditional media inherits its essence from the printed medium. The sender decides what is relevant and pushes information to an audience, offering no opportunity for interaction. That is how books, static web pages and newspapers work.

E-mail has some classic characteristics as well. Whether or not the content is relevant to you, there is implicit agreement that you will read every message you receive. People say: “you should know, I sent you an e-mail yesterday.”

Social media operates differently. Access to the medium is open and participants are free to express their thoughts in real-time. Recipients use filters to select what communication they will process and acknowledge. There is no implicit agreement by the receiver to read everything that is published.

Our reaction when we meet social media for the first time is that interactions are “too noisy” and “provides no meaningful content”. That perception is normal, since we approach the new medium with an old perspective.

Let’s address the “too noisy” first. In classical communication, we suppress noise (e.g. implementing communication workflows, restricting conversations to a set agenda, etc). The problem is that suppressing noise also constrains creativity.

You can also address noise by applying filters (ignoring what is not meaningful to you). The trade-off is different: let communication flow free, but when filtering noise out, you might also miss some useful content. That is the approach of Social Media.

What about “meaningful communication”?

Take a serious look at your e-mail inbox. How much of it is really meaningful? How many times you actually review old e-mail threads? Even when you go look at old messages, you are probably not reading the message; you are looking for specific dates, whether or not a person received it, or an attachment.

The fact that the CEO has replied to an e-mail message (and then half of the company also does because the CEO is involved) is more important than the content of the thread. If you look carefully, you will notice that context, the timing and subject line, interaction dynamics, and emotion carry the same or more information than the structured content expressed by the words in the body of an e-mail message.

The social medium is particularly good at capturing context and emotion. It is not designed to transfer structured content in large chunks (you can still use shared documents and attachment files for that). But, if it is true that people interactions are more important than structured data for collaboration, then the adoption of Social Media in business has the potential to make things better.

As of today, most social tools implement a Stream (a.k.a. Feed, Timeline, Wave, Wall) as the core infrastructure element to distribute unstructured content, using your social graph as a proxy for relevance (i.e. content produced or addressed to people closer to you tend to be more relevant). As those relevance filters evolve and become more intelligent, social tools will help to maximize the signal-to-noise ratio. These streams of interactions are the “Flows” Boyd refers to.

As a final point, independent of efficiency or effectiveness, the preference of users are also important in the selection of the best tool.

If you read installations manuals and don’t get the reason why people are using Twitter, you probably like the structure of documents and PowerPoint presentations. If you ignore documentation and power up the new stereo out of the box, you probably prefer interactive methods of learning and communication.

Demographics point to a future that is more social. Be prepared to spend more time in flows and Streams and less times in web pages, documents and your e-mail inbox.

This article was originally written for and posted at

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