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    Most of the time, distractions are your fault

    I had an acquaintance reach out to me recently who wanted my advice on an issue he has been experiencing in his workplace since, as he said to me in his note, 'Know something about HR'. While that is entirely up for debate, I had the sense that this person didn't really have many options to look to for some help, so I agreed to try to help and we had a talk.

    The gist of the problem, without getting into the details and the original causes of said problem, as they don't really matter, was that he has had a series of run-ins, arguments, and increasingly loud and hostile disagreements and interactions with a co-worker in an adjacent department. He and this person don't directly work on the same team, but their paths do cross from time to time on larger projects, division meetings, in the hallway, etc. There have been a couple of nasty email exchanges, allegations of some office refrigerator lunch shenanigans, and last week, a loud, screaming really, argument that was so loud that it caused the VP over both their departments to emerge from her office and send both parties home for the day. And to be clear , this is just personality conflict kind of stuff, nothing physical or sexual harassment related at all.

    When I talked to him, my acquaintance was exasperated because, at least according to him, none of this was his fault, he was not the source of the hostile behavior, and he really wants nothing at all to do with this co-worker. He just wants to show up, do his job, and go home. Which I suspect most of us do too. But for some reason, my acquaintance claimed, the HR folks who have gotten pulled in to this matter, and the VP and department managers are 'blaming' (his word), him equally for these workplace dramas and interruptions, and have not seen his side of the story. And this, he claims, is not fair. (I can read the minds of just about everyone still reading this laughing at the idea the the workplace should be 'fair'. But I digress).

    After hearing all that, again, just the one side of the story but coming from a person I think is pretty honest and trustworthy, I had to at least try to offer some advice. Kind of like when the contestant on Who Wants To Be a Millionaire uses their 'Phone a Friend'. Even if you have no idea of the name of the 17th European Monarch who lost some obscure battle, you better at least take a guess.

    So here was my guess/advice.

    These continuing issues that take time and attention from managers, colleagues, HR, and even execs get lumped into a large bucket called 'distractions', i.e., 'Stuff no one who has other things to do wants to deal with.'

    It doesn't matter who is 'right' or 'wrong' in this. If my acquaintance and his co-worker can't figure out a way to work this out, or effectively ignore each other, it is pretty likely that the VP will hit the point of 'I don't need to keep hearing about this nonsense' and one of the two people involved will have to go. Maybe a transfer, (might be unlikely because it is a small company), but more likely a 'Clean out your locker, it's time to go' for one or the other.

    And it won't matter which one started it or is 'wrong' or is being the bigger jerk.

    To many leaders, owners, execs, and even HR folks the solution to the problem isn't about sorting out who's right or who is wrong. The solution is about eliminating the distraction.

    That's why companies like Yahoo and IBM, after unearthing a few cases of remote workers more or less slacking off, decide to do a wholesale revocation of their work from home policies. That's why ESPN, after a couple of instances of on-air talent posting some arguably controversial content on social media issues a new, updated, and broadly worded social media policy that specifically requires employees to avoid posting content that would 'embroil the company in unwanted controversy.' And you know what 'unwanted controversy' is? Yep, another distraction.

    So I left the call with my acquaintance with this thought - if what you are doing (or being pulled into), is helping to create the same kind of 'unwanted controversy' or 'distraction' that no one with an important title wants to deal with, then you had better be prepared to be told it's time for you to go.

    I don't know if that was good advice or not. But it seems like if he fails to understand that things at work are often not fair, and distractions are like Superman's Kryptonite to business leaders, then he could be in for some bad news.

    Have a different thought on this? Let me know in the comments.

    Have a great day!


    Aligning business strategy and talent strategy: Kim Kardashian edition

    File this one to the 'You probably have no idea what is bothering your employees' file.

    Check this recent piece on Business Insider about some of the tensions that continue to roil the folks at beleaguered technology dinosaur Yahoo. I will just drop the headline (edited slightly to keep this post out of email subscriber's spam folders), then some quick comments after the lede:

    Yahoo's big media hires complain they have to compete against Kim Kardashion'a A$$'

    (from the piece)

    Yahoo's content strategy is frustrating a lot of its own writers and other media personalities, with many complaining about the front page algorithm that shows non-Yahoo generated stories over original content.

    In fact, it's become so demoralizing that some Yahoo journalists are openly complaining about losing front page space to lowbrow content, like celebrity gossip.

    “You are competing against Kim Kardashian’s ass,” is a running joke within the Yahoo newsroom, the report said.

    One big reason for this is that Yahoo's front page is run by an algorithm that automatically identifies and shows stories based on each user's personal taste..

    A quick point here, although the post from BI is meant to grab attention and clicks, the issue at Yahoo and Kim's 'features', is not the important takeaway from this. What is important, if we can expand upon the comments and complaints from the Yahoo writers, is that they seem to have not been clued in on the strategy and subsequent decisions (even the ones made by an algorithm), that Yahoo execs are pursuing.

    Yahoo's problem, at least in this example, isn't really whether or not the content strategy that favors aggregated, viral, or lowbrow content over more reasoned, professional, and high-minded content that the Yahoo writers produce is the 'right' one from a pure content creation perspective. 

    The problem is that the business/content strategy that results in our pal Kim being featured prominently on the Yahoo home page doesn't line up at all with the organization's talent strategy that has recruited and is paying handsomely lots and lots of super writers and reporters.  It doesn't make sense to pay (perhaps overpay), someone like Katie Couric to produce exclusive shows and interviews for the site, then bury these features underneath the latest celebrity news and gossip.

    There isn't much point in chasing 'top' talent if the work you have for them is not aligned with what 'top' talent expects and can most likely find somewhere else. It might work for a while, but then you do end up having to overpay, essentially bribing them to go along to come along if you will.

    But eventually, if they are really good, they will find somewhere to do what it is they really are born to do. It's just probably not chronicling the latest developments from Kim and Kanye's Instagram accounts.


    Giving up control

    Uncle Seth Godin has an interesting post/rant the other day about how it seems that Gmail has (at least for some), been delivering his daily blog's email version to subscribers' 'Promotions' tab in Gmail, or even worse, shunting the email to their Spam folders.

    In the post, Seth correctly reminds readers that if they (or you), rely on any kind of a algorithmic filter, be it Gmail's spam machinations or Facebook's (and other networks), 'newsfeeds' to make a determination of what posts the platform thinks you will be interested in seeing, then you constantly run the risk of missing things and content that at some point you had indeed indicated that you were interested in seeing/reading.Mark Rothko, Number 14 (1960)

    I wrote about the same phenomenon, from a slightly different point of view, recently too, when I posited more or less that we get the algorithms we deserve to some extent, by allowing ourselves to be beguiled into thinking that superior networking tools and technologies can somehow allow us to usurp the famous Dunbar number which suggests an absolute limit to the amount of social relationships a person can manage at any time. 

    Both posts, mine and Uncle Seth's, are really about the same issue at a fundamental level. In our information overload existence, we are increasingly ceding the signaling of what content is important enough for us to take a moment to actually consider to algorithms, which are at least in part informed by what everybody else thinks is important. Before the Facebook newsfeed took over the world, we used to subscribe to the sites/blogs we decided we were most interested in, either getting posts via email or the dearly departed Google Reader, and we could confidently rely upon either of those mechanisms to reliably deliver the content we explicitly desired.

    Sure, we may not have always had time to read all our email, or plow through all the unread items in Reader, but that was on us - the content would always be there whether or not we were ready to consume. And now, with Google deciding for us what messages we should be prioritizing, and the social networks relying on some mysterious formulas to determine the relevance of content, we have, even if we have not really intended to, relinquished some of our own agency in the process.

    And while I think things like spam filters and 'smart' algorithms can improve the way we see and engage with the barrage of information we confront on a daily basis, there still needs to be some kind of a universal setting for 'I want to see this all of the time, even if I don't read it right away, and especially if I don't click the like or share button every time I see it.'

    There needs to be an override to the algorithm for the things we decide we care about.

    Even if these things are not super popular. Even if they don't get 'enough' likes. 

    Even if Google thinks they are spam.

    Even if none of your Facebook friends like them.


    Dunbar is the reason why all social networks eventually become horrible

    In this week's episode of 'As the social networks turn', many big users and brands that are active on Instagram are in collective freak out mode about the (Facebook owned), social network's announced plans to change user feeds from the classic 'reverse chronological' order to some kind of an algorithmic feed designed to show users the posts they are likely to be most interested in seeing and engaging with at the top of the feed.

    The reasoning behind these changes are laid out on the Instagram blog post announcing the shift:

    You may be surprised to learn that people miss on average 70 percent of their feeds. As Instagram has grown, it’s become harder to keep up with all the photos and videos people share. This means you often don’t see the posts you might care about the most.

    To improve your experience, your feed will soon be ordered to show the moments we believe you will care about the most.

    The order of photos and videos in your feed will be based on the likelihood you’ll be interested in the content, your relationship with the person posting and the timeliness of the post. As we begin, we’re focusing on optimizing the order — all the posts will still be there, just in a different order.

    If Instagram is right, and people miss 70% of the posts from the accounts that they have choosen to follow, there can only be a couple of possible reasons why this is the case.

    1. People just don't spend that much time on Instagram. They check it now and again, look through a few pictures on their feed, and get back to whatever else it was they were supposed to be doing. They don't make it a point to make sure they have seen everything. (FYI - this would be me in terms of Instagram. I follow 119 'accounts' on Instagram. This is important to mention for reasons that will be more clear later in the post). I do check Instagram every day (or close to every day), but there is no way I see every photo that the 119 accounts I follow have posted. 

    2. The recent, and pretty dramatic, increase in ads and sponsored posts on Instagram has turned people off and they are using and engaging with content less and less, thus driving a more significant 'miss' percentage of their feeds. This increase in ads has definitely been noticeable lately, and while I know that Instagram needs to pay the bills, I also know that with social networks, almost no one signed up to see the latest artsy pic from Bank of America. More ads --> a worse user experience --> less time spent on the platform --> more posts missed.

    3. (And the real one I am most interested in). Many if not most users have decided to follow far, far too many users/accounts than they can reasonably keep up with. As I mentioned at the top, I follow 119 accounts, well below Dunbar's estimate of the number of social relationships that a person can reasonably carry on and I still can't (and really could not try for very long), to stay on top of this level of accounts on Instagram. This is not even considering for the moment the time commitment of all the other networks that a person today must have some type of presence on. A quick look through about five people I follow shows crazy numbers of accounts they are following, 500, 800, in one case over 1,200 accounts. You could live on Instagram all day and not be able to keep up with the feeds of 1,200 users. Instagram sees this situation, and will attempt to show this person (at least at the top of their feed), the 20 or 40 or whatever number of posts and accounts they follow, in order to try and improve the overall experience.

    So the better question is not 'Why is it impossible to follow and engage with 1,200 friends on Instagram, (or any other platform), but rather 'What would drive someone to even click the 'follow' button 1,200 times in the first place?

    Dunbar's research and the 'Dunbar number' have been well known and repeatedly proved out over a pretty long time. We know no matter how many people we follow on Instagram or Facebook or wherever, that we will only interact meaningfully if at all with a very small percentage of those people we follow. Probably even less than Dunbar's number of 150 I would bet.

    So why do we do it? Why do we try? How can it make sense to have 1,500 friends on Facebook?

    I think there is only one reason.

    It's because every online/social network starts as a site or community to connect with real friends and family. And then once the platform begins to grow, even more people join. And when even more people join still more people join, (and your teenagers flee to the next new network, but that is a different issue). But at some point (close to when the network starts accepting ads and sponsored posts), the tenor of the entire conversation around the network begins to shift into a commercial one.

    Brands and company accounts are set up and they try and act like people. People amass even larger following and then try to act like brands. For both the brands (and many of the people), it becomes all about maintaining business prospects and business relationships and much, much less about sharing details of your lives with your (less than 150) networks of people that you actually know.

    That's the only reason I can think of while you or me or anyone keeps following more and more people, beyond the ones you actually know and socialize with. They might be business contacts, they may just work in your company or industry - doesn't matter, you can't not follow them if it means missing out on a business opportunity.

    There are two essential truths about every popular social network.

    1. Once you join, your kids will think it is less cool

    2. Eventually, it will become all about business. Just about all anyway.

    Instagram is moving to an algorithmic feed because it has finally reached the point where the use/purpose of the platform is primarily commercial, and we should have known this was coming the minute we thought following 529 people was a good idea.

    Dunbar strikes again.


    Three lessons from getting caught offline unexpectedly

    Everyone runs into this at one point or another - a sudden, unexpected, and uncertain as to the duration period where you are knocked offline, out of contact, and unable to do just about any real work. It happened to me this week, and I have to admit I was not really unprepared as to how to make the best (or at least not have it be the worst), of a tough situation.

    These days, even a short stint of being out of contact can quickly escalate into a pretty dire set of circumstances - incoming messages pile up at an alarming rate, people are not sure why you are not getting back to them, (since you didn't know you needed to alert them), and certain folks begin to resort to alternate/additional means of contacting you when Option 'A' fails. To the person who followed up their email to me with a call, text, LinkedIn message, Twitter DM, AND Facebook message - this one is directed at you.

    So what did I learn from the aftermath of being offline and off-guard for a few days that might help me be better able to handle such a situation should it occur again in the future? I can think of three big and simple things, plus one request for a tool that if it existed, would have helped me out immensely.

    1. Making sure I had the actual phone numbers programmed into my phone of the most important 5 people that I am currently worknig with on various projects.  When you rely on email for about 95% of your work communication, and you are forced into a situation where you only have access to a phone, (and no charger), have extremely limited windows of time where you can work,  then trying to get much of anything done in email only for an extended period is just about impossible. Sometimes you have to just connect via phone to get anything done, and not having all of the numbers I needed at hand was a huge barrier to getting anything done.

    2. Figuring out how to set up an 'Out of the Office' auto-responder when having access only to the email apps on my phone. Like I mentioned, I was caught off guard to being out of touch and I didn't know how long I would be essentially out of reach. From the apps I use on my phone for my various email accounts, I was unable, (given my limited time and attention), to set up the classic 'Out of the Office' auto-responders that while not perfect, at least would have given people trying to get in touch with me a general sense of what to do or expect. I need to figure out how to make that work.

    3. Setting up 'smarter' email filtering. In the few moments I had to take a look at my email, I was simply overwhelmed with the volume of 'non-essential' messages I had to sift through in order to find the ones that did, truly matter. I have to take some time, find some add-on tools if needed, and set up a smarter system for tagging and filtering incoming messages to keep the Inbox clean of non-important items and more easily surface what is actually important. When you are working only with a phone, in very short time intervals, you need to only see what is needed.

    So those are the three things I need to do to be ready to handle this situation the next time it comes up. But there is one thing I don't know how to do at all, because I don't think it exists, and that is how to set up the equivalent of the email 'Out of the Office' auto-responder on all of the other ways that people try and connect these days. Like I mentioned, when some emails were going unresponded to, I started getting LinkedIn messages, Twitter mentions, and texts, and there is not any way that I know of to have one, universal, 'Out of the office' that would cover all of these methods and platforms. Which is why, I continue to contend, they are mostly terrible for business communication. So please, someone build a tool (and it has to be an App), that can make the 'Out of the Office' universal across other apps and platforms besides email.

    Ok, that is it. Now back to trying to catch up!