A few blips on the radar in the past week are leading me to reappraise some of the premises underlying my thinking about the way technology spreads. I was thinking about Google explicitly not talking much about Google+ at the recent Google I/O conference (see Google is nonplussed about Google+). My bet is that Google internally is an email culture, not a Google+ culture, and now that Vic Gundoltra has left the company there is probably less advocacy for the app internally. At any rate, Google has had a major impact on the way people communicate because of the enterprisey feel of Gmail. More than any other company, they have contributed to the hate of email that young people express. Think of how different it might be if they had made Gmail more interesting, somehow. (Let’s not even talk about Wave.)
I wrote yesterday about an initiative that is allegedly ongoing at Facebook, a project called Facebook at Work (see What does Facebook at Work mean?), which is basically a plan to productize something they have in place inside the company. Facebook uses some version of Facebook technology — Facebook Groups and messaging — to coordinate and work socially.
This isn’t earth-shattering news, per se. In fact, the initial explanation of Facebooks internal use of Facebook dates back to May 2012, over two years ago. But it made me think that perhaps the way that some of the leading software companies use their own products to get work done might have a real impact on how those tools are shaped, in general. And that can be at an obvious and uncontroversial level, or it can be more creepy.
Let’s start at the simple side of things. Yammer got its start as ‘Twitter for the enterprise’. I was there at Techcrunch when Yammer was launched with that straightforward positioning, and they won the conference competition, and went ahead to be acquired by Microsoft for $1.3 billion. Yammer uses the technology, and now, so do many others in Microsoft. And from what I’m hearing, it’s changing the way that Microsofties get their work done, and they are using email less.
But why is there no Twitter at Work? Why hasn’t Dick Costolo productized a version of Twitter for general business use? Don’t Twitterites use it for getting work done? Probably not, since there is no Facebook Groups equivalent, which sort of stops it in its tracks.
But now, it seems, we will have a Facebook at Work. However, other recent news makes that potentially creepy. It seems that Facebook researchers published a study in which they were intentionally attempting to manipulate the emotional state of Facebook users, basically to see if they could (see Facebook Doesn’t Understand The Fuss About Its Emotion Manipulation Study). Or, perhaps better said, they were trying to determine if emotions spread virally. And, yes they do. So if you intentionally filter feeds so that positive happy emotions are transmitted, then those reading them will be happier. And vice versa.
Leaving aside the furor about Facebook doing such a thing — and the terms of service agreement that allows them to do this sort of research — think about the general premise: businesses could, in fact, manipulate the emotional state of workers by choosing what sort of messages to float through the company’s work management tools. Or put into the most positive spin: companies could potentially influence the vibe at work just by picking which messages should be more aggressively spread than others. Is it really any worse than happy music in the elevators, or the inspirational posters in the cafeteria? Yes, probably. And it makes me wonder what else Facebook might be doing with its own workforce.
But as these large companies — Facebook, Google, Apple, Microsoft — take the ways that they use technologies internally and use that to shape their consumer products, the traditional assumption that work is being consumerized gets turned on its head. Maybe our personal lives are being reshaped by the corporate cultures of these software giants, through the agency of their tools.