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Clay Shirky is a writer, consultant and teacher on the social and economic effects of Internet technologies. He is an adjunct professor at New York University's graduate Interactive Telecommunications Program[…]

Like the personal computer, e-mail and instant messaging, social networks are now vital for businesses—even if they are also distractions.

Question: How do the Internet's many distractions affect rnworkday productivity?

Clay Shirky: There are several different trends at work rnon the work day.  My friend, Dalton Conley over at NYU, the sociologist,rn in fact, has just written a book about the way in which the formerly rnrelatively sharp dividing line between work and home has blended.  That rnwas a tradition in a way that started long before the Internet, althoughrn the Internet has certainly accelerated it.  In a way, Mine Sweeper, rnright, the old time-waster, has been replaced by Facebook, the new rntime-waster.  But Facebook is a certainly more pleasantly addictive rnpastime use of the service than Mine Sweeper was. 
rnBut to the larger point about going into your workday, spending all day rnanswering emails, dealing with interruptive things, and then leaving rnfeeling as if you’re getting nothing done... it seems to me that we are rnat the crux of a fairly, fairly significant social change in the way we rnconduct ourselves in the workplace because, to make a bold prediction, rnthings that can’t last, don’t.  Right?  Since it takes longer to answer arn question than to ask one, we can actually all make each other too busy rnto get anything done by just asking each other a bunch of questions.  rnAnd the initial assumption when email, later instant messaging, and rnother forms of group communication came into the workplace, is that now,rn finally, we could be better coordinated.  The better coordination meansrn more and more communications interfaces, thus leaving your friends, andrn in fact, all of us leaving the workday feeling like, oh my god, all I rndid today was communicate but I accomplished nothing. 
What rnwe’ve seen in the kind of vanguard of social movement—the open source rnsoftware movement is the largest sort of collection of participatory rntools—is that open source software projects have consistently grown to rnsuch a size that they can’t actually host all of the internal rncommunications.  And what they do is they then subdivide themselves and rnthey develop tools, not to help them communicate, but rather to help rnthem not communicate.  Which is to say, tools which allow individual rnworkers to get their job done with a minimum of coordination.  And rnthere’s going to be a competition among businesses to who can create thern best environment for their workers that minimizes interrupt logic and rnminimizes coordination.  Because I think that the pain your friend is rnfeeling, and again, that all of us feel, is really indicative of rnsomething quite deep, which is we can now communicate as much as we rnalways thought we needed to in the business environment and it turns outrn to be catastrophic. 
So, in large-scale enterprises, the rntrick is not starting to be to figure out which kinds of communication rnare critical and which are just sort of “cover your ass” constantly “cc”rn everybody occupational spam uses of the tool.  And to start fairly rnrigorously stamping out that second category of them because if we all rnhave each other communicate with one another as much as we think we needrn to, we’ll all swamp each other.  Right?  The source of your friend not rngetting anything done is other people, including him, on instant rnmessages and email threads.  But he is also himself the source of other rnpeople not getting anything done.  And it’s going to take coordinated rnaction, probably by the leadership of those companies to put the companyrn back on a footing where you can minimize coordination and collaborationrn to the critical moments rather than having it swamp everybody. 
How should companies deal with these online distractions?

Clay Shirky: You know, different companies deal with itrn differently.  I think increasingly, between the cultural expectations rnand the difficulty of shutting off access, this is becoming like the rnpersonal computer, like email, like instant messaging.  Every one of rnthose things—and you know, now Facebook and Twitter—every one of those rnthings was brought into the business.  Not because somebody in the rnexecutive suite said, “Now we have to have personal computers.”  They rnwere dragged into the business because the accountants hated talking to rnthe mainframe guys. And so, once Visicalc came along, they just brought rntheir own PC’s into the enterprise and hid it for a while. 
Ifrn you went and talked to somebody about email in the mid-‘90s, you’d you rnknow, maybe they heard about it, maybe they hadn’t.  You know, there rnwould be some, “oh, maybe some day we’ll get an email address.”  rnRight?   You go down and you talk to the sales guys and their business rncards all have AOL addresses on them because their clients have demandedrn it. 
Instant messaging, if you talk to the Wall Street guys rnabout instant messaging in the late ‘90’s, “do you ever talk to your rnclients on IM.”  Oh, no, no.  The FCC would never let us do that.”  rnRight? The brokers have an ICQ number.  So, the second phase of all of rnthat is the business then panicking and saying our employees are doing rnsomething that we didn’t allow them to do.  At which point the hurdle rnthe technology has to cross is, this is embedded enough in the cultural rnand business logic of this company, you can’t not do it. 
Peoplern in call centers will lose that battle.  Right?  If you’re in a call rncenter and it’s gonna be you’re in a cubicle farm and you’ve got your rnscript, and if you’re, you know, spending a lot of time on Facebook whenrn you should be on the phone, they’re going to shut that down.  People inrn magazines, people in newspapers, people in the media are at the other rnextreme.  Of course they’re going to have maximum access.  But my guess rnis, that as with the personal computer, e-mail and instant messaging, rnparticipating in social networks as a way of figuring out what your rncustomers are doing, figuring out what your vendors are doing, figuring rnout what you’re clients are doing, recruiting new hires, all of these rnkinds of characteristics are going to be... are going to seem to have rnenough value that after awhile most companies are going to capitulate rnand reopen the firewall inasmuch as they’ve shut it down.

Recorded on May 26, 2010
Interviewed by Victoria Brown