Holly Thomas: Web life for grownups

As an editor for the Office group, Holly Thomas focuses on OneNote, Visio, and editorial (r)evolution. Her idea for this column came from a mind-bending conference on Enterprise 2.0 (how BIG BUSINESS uses social media). During her off hours she's a visual artist and writer intrigued (inspired? perplexed? disturbed?) by what's unfolding in the world. Beaches of the Puget Sound island that she calls home are her antidote for information overload. Visit her new blog on MSDN and her somewhat weedy profiles on Facebook and LinkedIn.

Next time you're in a meeting listening to a manager who looks younger than your cat detail your role in your company's Social Media Future (aka Web 2.0), consider this: Never before has the workforce spanned such a crazy range of technological backgrounds. However you draw the lines, those of us who generate paychecks break into distinctly different groups depending on when we grew up:

  • Before computers Mimeographed homework assignments. Account ledgers. Manual typewriters. Steno pools. Back when "cc" meant actual carbon copies and paper reigned.
  • Before PCs Humming mainframe systems the size of Cadillacs, rack after rack of data stored on spools of tape, punch cards by the fistful, zigzag paper printouts.
  • Before the internet Snail mail was the only kind, newspapers thrived, and hard-bound encyclopedias hogged library shelves (until Encarta came along — remember Encarta?)
  • Before social media Before MySpace and Facebook, Twitter, Digg, RSS feeds, blogs, and wikis. Friends were almost always people you actually, like, knew.
  • Now The first generation for whom text messaging is almost as natural as speaking, and to whom online privacy matters less than constant presence in a plugged-in world.

And guess what? That last group is the only one that’s growing.

Swimmers and fish

Those of us in the "Before" groups may be jumping into the Social Media environment as fast as we can. But the world of tweeting, texting, friending, digging, and blogging is not our native element.

We're like swimmers. Not nearly of Olympic champion Michael Phelps’ caliber, but capable of learning to cover the distance we need to, charmed by certain entertainments along the way (lunchtime YouTube, anyone?) But there are swimmers, there are excellent swimmers, and then there are fish. Vast numbers of folks now coming of age — the generation that John Palfrey calls "digital natives" in Born Digital — are already so comfortable in the waters of social media that they might as well sprout gills.

Demographic distinctions are more than handy categories. Web 2.0 — the first great wave of social media — is fundamentally retooling how we work, play, connect, and, perhaps quite literally, think. Behavioral scientists and worried educators are scrutinizing our young colleagues-to-be for signs of lopsided intellectual development, social problems, attention shortfalls, etc.. But these same young people also have a facility with virtual communication in multiple media that borders on creative genius.

As for the rest of us? We're looking for common ground.

What we have in common

At work, the mix of perspectives can spur creativity even as it creates tension. Assuming that we all want to accomplish something when we tackle a given project, we most likely set out to:

  • Find what we need.
  • Learn what will be useful.
  • Share what we figure out.
  • Influence something for the better.
  • Enjoy the process (or at least emerge from it with no psychological scars).

But how we actually work varies tremendously. For some of us, Web 2.0 tools have already replaced earlier ways of doing research or keeping in touch — or not.

  • We may post a question to Twitter instead of researching the topic on or offline — or we may regard Twitter as the ultimate randomizer and steer clear.
  • We may rely on certain bloggers and news compilers instead of mainstream news sites — or cherish the news sites for the way they take the pulse of the world.
  • We may publish our work in a wiki format that others can modify — or boldly trademark and copyright it to say "hands off."
  • We may actually read the RSS feeds we sign up for — or watch them pile up in our inboxes, overlooked and forlorn.

In an ever-expanding sphere of possibilities, we’re looking for what works. But even something as sturdy as email gets complicated in this new world.

For example, if you're trying to decide how to brainstorm about a great idea, do you launch a discussion about it on your company blog? Email it to your contacts list? Add it to a group "idea" list on your team's SharePoint site? Whiteboard it in the hallway? Compound the work by monitoring all of the above until you curl into a whimpering ball?

Multi-tasked to a fault

Most of us multi-task. Dave Crenshaw, author of The Myth of Multitasking, and John Medina, author of Brain Rules, both cite compelling evidence that switching from task to task slows us down and introduces more errors than we get from continuous focused attention. Many of us consider multi-tasking as much a pathology as a skill, but for good or ill it's what we do. And to folks who've been doing it all their conscious lives, it's hard to imagine any other way of working.

The popcorn stage

Once when I was having a particularly frenzied day, a friend who used to teach neuroscience told me that young lab mice go through what he called a “popcorn stage” — their muscles lose control and they start ricocheting around their cages, bouncing off walls and ceilings like furry popcorn.

Where Web 2.0 is concerned, many of us are in that stage or approaching it.

Five years ago we didn't write blogs or maintain social profiles. "Friend" was a noun reserved for people we’d actually met. Concerns about privacy made us wary of sharing personal information or mixing personal with professional personas in the online world. And if we had Web sites, we didn’t agonize over whether they were optimized for global search engines.

Now we're scrambling to establish and manage our own online identities through profiles, personal blogs, company blogs, project blogs, wikis, SharePoint sites, networking sites, shared calendars, RSS feeds, podcasts… you name it.

For those of us who didn’t grow up this way, all this can feel pretty strange. We are already multi-tasked to the max in our “real” lives. In our “virtual lives” there’s a building pressure to be everywhere at once. Here at Microsoft there's a joke that if you don't have ADHD when you start, you will by the time you leave. Web 2.0 extends that potential fragmentation through the entire "webiverse."

What this means for business

Finding ways to use our online environment to organize and enhance our work instead of bouncing among too many possibilities is a challenge we haven’t yet mastered. But Web 2.0 is remarkably democratic. It gives everyone who uses the Web a way to rapidly experiment, reach out, and listen.

We're so deluged with information and tasks that we’ve no patience for processes that put speedbumps in our way. We shun websites that haven’t thought through what their visitors need. We’re drawn to sites and environments that offer well-thought-out experiences that evolve publicly and connect people with people.

From our different perspectives, we each become expert in what works and what doesn't. And that’s true whether we’re acting as customers, employees, or owners — and whether the websites and communities we rely on are internal and proprietary or public to the world.

A new art form?

Take heart — just because some of us are grandparents doesn’t mean we're not already social-media-savvy or capable of becoming so. Necessity remains the mother of invention. And for those college-age or younger, ease with all things digital doesn’t necessarily mean virtual life is displacing real life.

Instead, each of us may be participating in the birth of a new art form: weaving our online and offline lives together into a presence more expansive and rich — and with a greater possible influence — than any our ancestors imagined.

Comments (2)
  1. Sharon Aiken says:

    Thank you for your blog post. I have been trying to convince some of my former students who are in their late 30s that times ARE changing, that the minds of today’s high school and college students are being re-trained, re-wired, and that the best thing some of us can do is to adapt and float along.  (I’ve never been much of a swimmer, but I can float on my back like nobody’s "biznis.") Time has never marched backward. Education took a huge leap forward when schools began providing breakfast so that students’ attention would not be divided between hunger and the alphabet and addition; the next true leap for educators came with "brain-based" learning, and "intelligence" became varied, as Howard Gardner pointed out; now it has taken new leaps and educators are either being left behind, bitter, cynical, and suspicious or they’re scrambling to keep up with some aspects of technology–forget the attempt to get ahead of it.  Right now, I find myself fortunate to be teaching in a community college, using blogs as part of my freshman English classes. They are a learning experience–for me as well as students. I have some students, freshly graduated from high school and some just a few years younger than myself. I have seen them learn from each other, and know that Web 2.0 can work. It’s a matter of one’s attitude more than anything else.  You are right.  We are not all swimmers.  Certainly, we are not all fish.  But I learned that I could scuba dive without being a fine swimmer, and that taught me more than I ever dreamed I would need to know in the world of Web 2.0.

    Thanks again for the post.  Hope to find more of them!

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