Are our expectations of social software too high? And as a corollary, are our expectations of ourselves and software users too low?
Even some of the seemingly simplest applications – 43 Things, LinkedIn, WordPress, et al., still present challenges for the less-than-tech-savvy. But perhaps even more importantly, making effective business use of these tools seems to present a challenge for even some of the most tech-savvy.
Why is this? And what can we do about it?
My contention is that, in general, we have a disparity of experience between face-to-face and virtual interaction that is simply insurmountable by even the best user interface.
Consider this from our book, The Virtual Handshake:
By age 30, you have likely spent roughly 130,000 hours in face-to-face interaction. Now consider a typical businesswoman. She has been using e-mail perhaps ten years and the Internet approximately five. The average Internet user is only online approximately 11.1 hours a week. Her entire experience with virtual interaction is probably not even 5,000 hours.
We have a tremendous disparity of experience at the personal level, and it’s even greater for the mainstream business user outside of the tech industry.
Now consider the socio-cultural level. We have been interacting with each other face-to-face for tens of thousands of years. We have been developing verbal communication skills like debate, rhetoric and oratory for several millennia. But we have been communicating via e-mail for only about thirty years, and it has been mainstream for less than ten.
We have built up a robust ecosystem of skills training for face-to-face communication that is unmatched for virtual communications. There is no online equivalent of Toastmasters. Google turns up 391,000 results for courses on “effective presentations”, but only 40,000 for courses on “effective e-mails”. This is admittedly anecdotal, but pick any similar terms you want for comparison purposes and you’ll see the same results, e.g., over 9 million results for public speaking courses vs. less than 2 million results for business writing courses.
We spend a whole chapter of The Virtual Handshake showing the many ways in which virtual interaction is not inferior to face-to-face interaction, just different, so I won’t go into that here. What I want to focus on is the expectation we have of these new social software tools and the people that use them.
Is it reasonable for small business owners to expect to be able to just start blogging and have it immediately generate more business? No more so than it is to expect them to automatically be good bloggers.
Is it reasonable for American users of Ecademy and openBC to be completely comfortable interacting with Europeans and Asians (and vice-versa) without even a thought given to cultural differences? Software may help these people connect, but it can’t make those issues go away.
There are more of these comparisons I could draw than I have room for here. Some social software tools make it easier to find people and make contact with them. Others, like blogs, may also help by automating and simplifying complex tasks.
But none of them make the human aspect of these relationships any easier. None of them help you write more effectively. None of them do much of anything to help you translate those relationships into business value. None of them help people become more likable, less emotionally volatile, or communicate any more clearly. If we ask that of software, we ask far too much.
So what of the users? The fact of the matter is that while some skills translate well from other domains, others don’t. General business writing skills will certainly help your e-mail communications, but there are some techniques that are unique to e-mail. Knowing how to maintain a filing cabinet doesn’t mean you magically know how to maintain your e-mail folders. Managing a department is very different from managing a discussion forum.
Again, if we expect people to transfer all of their conventional skills completely into the virtual world, without any guidance or supplemental training, we ask too much.
We don’t need to put virtual interaction on a par with face-to-face and phone interaction — it’s already there. What we need to do is catch up our skills training and organizational development to reflect this reality.