Social Business, 2014-19-August-Beehive.jpgI’ve observed a curious arc in the discourse around social networks, especially in the past few years since open (or "consumer") web applications like Facebook and Twitter have gained hundreds of millions of users. The discussions about how we live and work in social networks in real life have changed, and in a subversive way. The enormous scale of these tools have led us to consider the world as an unbounded single network, while in fact we operate in many distributed and discontinuous social networks. 

The Rippling Out of Networks 

Consider how you operate at work. Perhaps you are a creative, a graphic designer in a large agency. You are working on several projects at any given time, with different "sets" of people, some of whom are working on only one project with you, while a small number might be working on several with you. Each of these is a social network, and each has its own style, dynamics and way of doing things. Each can be thought of as having its own microculture. And in each project you are naturally more inclined to connect with some of the sets of people than others.

Of course, these sets of people -- working, communicating and getting things done -- are part of other, larger networks. For example, all the people in your department or office that you come into contact with, however infrequently. These are also sets, but less active ones.

However, there are associations of people that operate at a different scale, quite unlike the frequent and dense connections of many sets. Consider all the people that work in a large organization, like UPS or the US Army. They are connected to each other in a very different way, but most critically they are an association of people that don’t know each other. Yes, all the soldiers in the Army can be communicated to by the Commander in Chief, but in general, a conversation that goes on at one Army base in North Carolina between six sergeants has no impact on what happens the next day on a base in Germany. However, those comments might travel by word of mouth, and impacting many people on that base who were not present. This is the idea of a scene: an aggregation of people, many of whom don’t know each other, but who are connected as friends of friend’s friends.

Research has shown that we are embedded in these larger associations, these social scenes, even when they aren’t as well defined as the Army or working at UPS. For example, you, the creative graphic designer, are likely part of a social scene of designers, and the ideas and trends that are floating around in that scene can have as large as an influence on you as any discussion you had with your boss, or what your non-designer colleagues on the XJ11 widget project have to say.

Distinguishing Sets from Scenes 

We human beings are embedded in very different social connections with very different properties and different scales. We’ve touched on two, so far: sets and scenes. Let’s talk about how these are different. As a designer, you have been hearing a great deal about "flat" design, like Google’s new push on so-called Material Design. That set of ideas is floating around, and the diffused pressure of what hundreds or thousands of design-savvy people are saying and doing around flat design percolates through the scene. You start to consider a flat design as part of a new project. That’s the sort of influence and impact scenes have.

But you are worried about advocating flat design for the project because it hasn’t been done before at your firm. It’s risky. You might be considered faddish or too edgy. We know from a great deal of research that in this situation, people want to find support for taking a risky step from people they trust: members of their sets. And they generally require support from multiple close connections before they get a wild new haircut, advocate something new in a stodgy context, or start wearing jeggings to work.

At the larger scale, there are organizations like large businesses, organized religions, governments and cities. These are large enough that they may contain dozens or hundreds of social scenes, many with conflicting interests, goals, and mechanisms of exclusion. However, a secular humanist can still share a subway or an elevator with a conservative Rabbi, a rapper, and a graphic designer, and even connect and interact at a transient and passing level.

Building the Tools to Scale

"So what?" you may feel like saying. Here’s what: these different scales benefit from very different sorts of social tools, and a great deal of what we are seeing from today’s mainstream enterprise social tools are primarily geared toward scenes and worlds. This is the realm of corporate speak: the company, or department, or all the 340 people working on the XJ11 project. There is a lot of communication going on, but its like an open office plan: people have to put on headphones to damp down the broadcast messaging and get things done in smaller sets.

There is a shift going on toward what I call contextual conversation, as seen in the rise of chat-based tools like Slack, Flowdock and Hipchat. These naturally operate around sets: small teams, frequently communicating, and building that microculture where things get done.

Jeff Bezos is well-known for his Two Pizza axiom -- that all teams should remain small enough that they can be fed lunch with only two pizzas. These are sets, which contextual conversation tools are geared to support, and where our work gets done.

Companies may want scene-based tools, as well. However, most of today’s mainstream enterprise social networks aren’t really well-suited to what goes on in scenes, because those tools straddle too much, trying to help sets, scenes and worlds, but those are such different scales that these highly general tools fail.

We’re seeing a slowdown in adoption of now-traditional enterprise social networks, and a number of analyst firms have revised their projections of the market growth downward. I think these are all the same phenomenon: people are rejecting apps that try to span many scales of human interaction, and are starting to turn to contextual conversation because most of our real work is done in sets, and maybe in the future, nearly all of it will be.

We don’t live in a world where everyone is connected to everyone. Everyone (mostly) is connected to a few sets of known people, and through them to larger scenes with many unknown people, and through those to worlds of mostly unknown people.

The tools vendors will have to learn this lesson, and stop pretending that work is performed by armies, instead of small teams eating two pizzas in the cafeteria.

Title image by Carsten aus Bonn (Flickr) via a CC BY-ND 2.0 license