Online sociability: from black-and-white to a continuum

The effect of our online sociability on other areas of life has gained more and more attention during the last 20 years. Most recently, an article in Harvard Business Review blog discusses how time online reduces time spent working.

The author also points out some caveats related to the study – and possibly to many other similar studies – but it seems that one obvious point is missing: what is meant by ’work’ here?

This is an important question to ask, as it would be misleading for any study to map together a set of varying working practices ranging from production lines to treating patients, from cleaning to analyzing information and from driving a car to customer service, just to conclude that online sociability reduces our effort put into work.

After these years within online community research, I am a bit tired of black-and-white interpretations of what does online social life do to work (or to society, youth, brains and so on, for that matter). It is not either-or, but a continuum.

The outcomes depend on where an employee it settled along that continuum. Consider an expert, whose work is based on building customer relationships across the globe – not just existing customers, but also searching for new markets and establishing new connections. For him/her, online sociability is at the heart of being able to work at all, while social media provides a highly valuable source of information.

Yet when giving seminar presentations or lectures on sociability online to the well-experienced experts from the industry, there is always the one guy asking: ”How come you think our employees should be allowed to go to Facebook, when they should be working?”

Of course, managing interruptions and Personally Orientating for Work (POW) are tasks to be taken seriously. But I like to ask that guy, how could a few lines from your partner of a close friend make you less effective? Such messaging only takes a few seconds, with long-lasting positive mood.

Above all, are there still echoes from the history – and the early era of manufacturing? If employees spend 8-10 hours a day at the workplace, provided with only the equipment they need to work and definitely nothing else, they will perform better, right? No.

Managers, listen to researchers: the more the work requires non-imitable skills, creative effort and passion, the more results you get by providing your employees enough freedom – and positive feedback. This should be no news anymore.

For a fully routine work, we have robots. It is still humans who specialize themselves and pose a set of skills that cannot be copied or automated. As our knowledge management group’s own example from service sector demonstrates, even the services considered most ”routine” involve a set of specialist knowledge.

The HBR blog author also notes how a recent paper reveals that online interactions do not take place at the expense of face-to-face socializing.

We should remember that the existence of new forms of social media do not justify stating such conclusions as ”new”. As I have often criticized, the communication-technology centered view on online interactions makes us to reinvent the wheel over and over again. Sociologist Barry Wellman and his group did pioneering work already in the 1990s, concluding that online networks provide a complementary means to maintain social relationships. As such, they do not erode social capital. Within communication research, Joseph Walther came to the same conclusion by pointing out how online relationships could even develop into close, intimate and highly valued ones.

In sum, online sociability is an extension of our social lives, existing identities and networks. As a logical consequence, for businesses these networks provide a complementary source of valuable knowledge and new ideas. And this is definitely something you should be allowed to work on during office hours.


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