Understanding SnapChat and a Corporate Context for Collaboration Tools

Have you ever heard of SnapChat? If you are interested in the latest trends in web and mobile technology like I am, you should know them.

Two years ago, I first realized that SnapChat was "hot", when they turned down an offer to be bought by Google for 500 million USD. We tried the service back then to understand why it was so successful. We failed.

We got the basic concept though:

  • Short snippets as messages
  • Mostly only available for seconds or minutes
  • Shareable with one friend, a group or all friends

We could not understand how this service was different or any better than other instant messengers like Whatsapp or HipChat in the business context.

A lot of corporate leaders probably face a very similar situation with digital collaboration tools in the workplace today.

Common prejudices we hear from customers about collaboration tools and we had about SnapChat:

  • This is a nonsense communication tool no one needs.
  • There is no value in this for my work.
  • If I introduce this to others it will only be a productivity drain and no help for them either.
  • The whole thing is not much more than a hype and will go away sometime in the future.

Darryll Duke once introduced me to the "conveyor belt of software". It’s a metaphor of how people react to new software introduced in companies. They simply ignore it. They will be carried on by the conveyor belt of software just as suitcases are carried by the conveyor belt in the airport when everybody ignores them.

This is a very good tactic to react to the introduction of new software. Unless the software does not disappear but proves to be pervasive in your company. Then you risk to be one of those "lame ones who don’t get it".

At first it was okay to say, that you do not read any emails. Then it was okay to print them and react offline. Today you cannot join a company any more if you are not familiar with or do not work with email. It is the tool of tools in the workplace.

But email is old. It was long ago when people started to abuse it. They used it to share files and still do. They share ideas and start discussions over email. And everyone is annoyed.

There is new technology that is better than email. And this technology is heavily used in smart organizations today.

And there is a group of people out there that are open to new forms of communication without prejudices and barriers: young people. They have no boss who tells them what to use and how to work with their smartphone. They only ask simple questions: "Does that work for me? Is it interesting? Does it help me?"

Are you interested in communication in the workplace and ways to improve it? I am. You should be frightened if young people use communication technology that you do not understand. So am I.

That is why I reevaluated SnapChat with the help of some nieces of my brother during a recent birthday party. They do not use Facebook. They only use Whatsapp to stay in contact with their parents. SnapChat seems to be the tool of choice.

Here are some observations I made:

  • SnapChat is pictures and video snippets, less text.
  • SnapChat is casual communication that does not necessarily need a specific goal. It’s like a chat at the watercooler. It connects people.
  • Unlike Facebook there is no beauty or vanity in the usage. You can and do post ugly fotos and videos of yourself there. They will be deleted within seconds after retrieval.
  • SnapChat is "share first" where Whatsapp and Facebook are "consume first". If you want to consume content of your friends you’ll have to skip the sharing dialogue that opens by default with the app.
  • People who make screenshots of pictures are lame. The app teaches to respect vanishing content.

All this sounds weird even if you are using the latest tools in the workplace. Must sound even weirder if you’re still stuck in email collaboration.

I call a corresponding phenomenon "massive oversharing". It does not matter if your message surmounts a certain level of relevance. This communication style trusts others to cope with information loads diligently. This assumption is uncommon. Especially in large corporations, management still tries to reduce the amount of information for coworkers. The common assumption is: People cannot deal with heaps of news updates.

Young people seem to be able to do so. SnapChat is only one example. My guess is, that they do not filter for relevance, but only look at "what’s relevant right now in this moment". That is a very powerful filter that also allows a group of people to focus together. Another filter is what I would call "social distance". It is more relevant to understand what your team members are up to than what someone thinks who is from another team, that you do not regularly interact with.

Massive oversharing only works if you let go of controlling your coworkers and trust them to make the most of their time. It also needs a strong belief in information as a pull medium. People pull the info they need.

In our social intranet Linchpin we offer a section for top-down communication. It is a push area for news. This is totally incompatible with "massive oversharing". Management needs to limit push news to a minimum.

Coworkers should on the other hand be able to share information in their workspaces for everyone who is interested. They should adopt a massive oversharing communication style.

The next time you hear a manager talk about the "reduction of complexity" think of young people and SnapChat. You do not need to (and by the way cannot) reduce complexity. You need to trust your coworkers to deal with information as a pull medium.

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