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Some Social Media is Toxic to Productivity: Google+, Twitter, and Facebook

Posted by Bob Warfield on July 21, 2011

This post is on  behalf of the Enterprise CIO Forum and HP.

Do you struggle with productivity some days?  Have you discovered that one of the secrets is to eliminate distractions?  If your answer is yes to both, then you’ll understand where I’m coming from with this post.

After having spent some time with Google+, it finally clicked that some forms of Social Media are toxic for productivity, and some are not.   Let’s try listing a few in each category and see if we can discern any patterns:










Forums with a Purpose or Focus:  HackerNews or any Customer Forum associated with a Product or Company

What’s the difference?  That last example, “Forums with a Purpose or Focus” comes close to laying it out.  But first, let’s go back up and look at it from a high level.

People just love to talk.  It’s not just the title of a great Blues tune, it’s true.

When we’re working, we know when we’re talking productively and when we’re not.  Hanging out around the water cooler discussion wide ranging topics, many of which have little to do with work, is fun but not productive.  That period at the beginning of a meeting when not quite everyone is there and whoever is running the meeting hasn’t started it–we all know what that is about.  We don’t enter the workplace under a vow of silence–talking is important and a lot of it is productive.  But if you want to focus productivity and make sure your tools for collaboration are actually accomplishing something useful, you need to understand the psychology of productive talk versus just talk.

Getting back to our list, Forums with a productive purpose or focus are far more likely to be an aid to productivity than say a Twitter stream.  Why?  Because the forum is like the meeting that’s gotten started.  It has moved from random chit chat to a focus.  If you’re at that meeting, you are potentially a part of that focus.   Same thing with the question-oriented social media like Quora and StackOverflow.  They bring a focus of some kind into play, StackOverflow more so than Quora.  At least Quora uses the tools of a Q&A modeled site to try to float some cream to the top and bury the dreck.  Same with LinkedIn.  It has a particular focus.  Yes, people can comment to their networks, but do you really get sucked into those random comments very much?  Do you go to LinkedIn to participate in that?  Same thing with blogs.  Most of them have a purpose or theme.  They’re a channel you tune to knowing what to expect.  Or if they don’t, you know to expect that too.  But they do occupy a defined channel that can be tuned in or tuned out consciously.  They’re not just a random free for all that rages 24×7.

The problem with the Toxic Media is they employ every trick in the book to drag you back into their embrace, just when you thought you’d been scared sober by the need to get some work done:

–  They notify you of every little thing.  Google+ is the worst because its part of your email stream if you use GMail, which had been, by virtue of its focus on the relatively narrow mailing list, a quasi-productive type of Social Media.  Not only do a get the little red indicator that I need to attend to G00gle+ (feed the beast!), I get what looks like ordinary email from folks I know that is a thread digest.  Pretty clever guys!  As an aside, people have been well aware of the toxicity to productivity of email, plugging Social Media into your email is far worse.

–  They make it sooo easy to just take one more.  Nobody can eat just one, was that old tagline.  It’s only 140 characters max and you don’t need to worry about pictures, proper spelling, grammar, or any of that.  Come on, it’s easy!

–  They make you do it personally.  Latest innovation–ban the bots.  No automatic posts.  If you want to be heard, you have to take the time and type it yourself.  Sure, they’ll tell you this increases the quality of the feed.  Great.  Now I have Larry Page posting a picture of a kite in my stream that leads to hundreds of inane comments having nothing to do with anything that keep bumping the item back up.  I deleted Larry from my Circles, and it kept on coming.  Finally had to mute the post.

–  Along the lines of doing it personally, the last innovation was ban the clients.  You have to go back to the Toxic World and be exposed to all those distractions.  Forget about tools to help you sift through the chaos to create a focus or purpose–that’s not allowed.  Forget about tools to make you more productive with the Medium, that is also not allowed.  It might interfere with the complete absorption of every last available neuron if we let you get too choosy.

–  They make it a game.  Games are great.  They make you feel like you’re doing work because hey, we’re keeping score!  You won a badge!  You sorted those random names into circles!  You silly fool, you were productive as heck, what were you thinking?  Just be careful when the game has little to do with what you need to do to be productive.

Sameer Patel was remarking that he was fascinated by all the chatter about how Google+ could be a collaboration tool for the Enterprise (don’t know if that link will get you to the thread or not), I responded:

Google+ has too many viral hooks designed to maximize its sink on your time without regard to your productivity. Personally, I’d ban it from the Enterprise and provide some other collaboration tool.

Those are strong words, but the viral hook issue is real.  Social Media designers have gotten really good at gaming human psychology to drive traffic regardless of whether that traffic is productive.  Hey, you really didn’t want to be in a productive meeting anyway, if you had a choice, did you?  Many people wouldn’t.  But at least somebody in charge finally does get the meeting started and people know to get productive.  Who performs that task when you’re alone at your desk surfing the Toxic Media?  Personally, I try to turn it off by 9am and get on with my day.  If I revisit, I limit it to lunch hour or end of day.   Treat it like it’s play and don’t kid yourself that it’s work.

And Enterprises, think about banning Toxic Media rather than hoping you’ll reap the benefits of collaboration by embracing it.  Banning it is going to be a neat trick if you can’t figure out how to ban G00gle+ without banning GMail.  One more bit of clever to combine the two.

I look forward to seeing more Productive Media models invented like StackOverflow, or conversely, features added to Toxic Media to provide the antidote when used in Business.  There’s a lot of room for worthwhile innovation there.

I will continue to enjoy playing with Google+, but I’ll try to make sure the addiction stays controlled.


I’ll be interested to see whether this post is controversial.

To all those who will want to write with anecdotes of the hugely valuable information and contacts they’ve gotten from Toxic Media, hold the phone.  Are you telling me that all the time you had to spend separating wheat from chaff was the most efficient way to get that information or make those contacts?  Did you even try to find either in another way?  Search Engines?  LinkedIn?  Color me skeptical.

7 Responses to “Some Social Media is Toxic to Productivity: Google+, Twitter, and Facebook”

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  3. Not sure whether it’s “controversial” or not, but I don’t agree with it.

    Social media can absolutely be a time suck, but it’s intended to drive conversations between people. People can babble aimlessly about things that have no “constructive value”, but they can also talk about issues that tie back to revenue, drive relationships, and create value.

    It’s also worth noting that things like blogs are often driven by tools like Facebook, Twitter, G+, etc.. Take them away, and we’re back to e-mail and RSS to share content.

    • Eric, if you agree some of these are a time suck, then we’re already on the same page and we’re just arguing degree. The real insight to the post is that some Social Media is a lot more effective at making sure the time spent is productive, while others just want all of your time productive or not. We don’t have to be back to e-mail and RSS, but we should think carefully about which tools we want to trust to enhance our productivity and which tools are not going to be a net positive for anything but the babble.



  4. cvancourt said

    Hi Bob:

    I totally agree with you.

    Some social media channels provide tons more tangible business payback than others. Many social media channels to some degree should be called upon to succinctly extract real value as appropriate, but leaving the facet on is more of a distraction than anything more often than not.

    All the folks pushing the value for providing staff access to these social networks generally seem to be in one of four camps:

    1. They work for a social network
    2. They make money by selling product or service for people using into social networks, often pointing to abnormal use cases that create fear for the power of social networks
    3. They work for an area in a company where they have something to personally gain by touting the value of broad social network access
    4. They think that everyone needs to hear what they have to say and that their input should be heard, especially if it involves what they consider to be expert or anything to do with a company they work for

    You just don’t see the people focused on measurable payback who pay the bills joining in with these often biased cheerleaders.

    Decisions about usage and support of social media sites need to be completed using sound business judgment…meaning things like defining service levels for responding to inquiries initiated through social media channels must involve assessing costs and paybacks. Sustainable businesses just don’t give customers whatever they supposedly want.

    Don’t get me wrong, I absolutely believe, like I know you do, in the power of collaboration and synergistic outcomes. I just believe in having metrics to measure and motivate desired contributions and happen to think that crowdsourcing of the uninformed and ill-prepared is dumb and that smartsourcing is smart.

    Glad to see you shaking some trees on this one.

    Have a great weekend.

    Chuck Van Court, FuzeDigital

  5. Social media doesn’t have to be toxic (and I’m not sure that agree with your toxic vs. productive choices either). Its all in how its used … in the execution and orchestration. As an example, there is potentially tremendous value in connecting social media front ends (even Facebook & Twiiter) with (legacy) enterprise apps ( It is a potentially simple way to execute an application modernization program (in a way that avoids some of the toxic pitfalls).

    As for productivity itself, I question whether that’s our goal at all (re: “Busyness Epidemic”). Should it be? Absolutely, but we’re not there yet.

    –Paul Calento (
    (Note: I work on projects sponsored by Enterprise CIO Forum and HP Instant-On Enterprise)

    • If a tool requires exceptional skill in its use, is laborious, or potentially even dangerous, that is one kind of tool. If another tool is easy to use, requires little training, gets the work done faster, and has a much better accident record, that is another kind of tool.

      There are distinctions in the quality of the Social Tools as well, particularly when they are evaluated in light of alternatives. Businesses should take the time to think about what makes one tool better than another, and not just jump on the Social Bandwagon because it’s the shiny new thing.

      Does deploying insurance enrollment forms to Facebook (the example you linked to) make it any less toxic? I don’t see how. For one thing, that’s not a social application of Facebook, they’re just using it for its familiar forms metaphor. I’m skeptical that those customers couldn’t have been equally as well served by a reasonably designed web site, but perhaps the problem is most insurance companies can’t manage to create reasonable web sites so it is easier to do it in Facebook. There are a lot of marketers out there well versed in the Social who would argue you want to move people from Facebook to your own web property and simply use Facebook as a starting point for a whole host of reasons I’m sure you must have heard.

      Still, I’d be fascinated if you really mean to dispute the salient points of my post:

      – That some Social Tools are far more productive to businesses than others.

      – That tools with a focus have far better signal to noise ratios than generic tools like Facebook and Twitter.

      – That this focus improves productivity.

      – That the long list of other toxic qualities I suggest (constant interruptions, etc.) are somehow helpful to business and a necessary part of the Social Condition.

      If so, it would make a fascinating blog post for you, Paul, and one I’d happily respond to. If not, well, we’re back to that old joke where in the end we agree but are arguing matters of degree.



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