Remember Tom?

In 2003 Tom Anderson helped launch MySpace.  It wasn’t the first social network but it was the first to capture the world’s imagination.

Even for those of us who’d been using IRC and ICQ, or the Messengers of Yahoo and MSN Myspace represented something very different: a website, not something you installed.

You might have been invited, in which case you’d have a friend. Or you might know what you were doing and be confident. But neither of those were guaranteed, there was every chance you’d be joining this strange and alien world without any friends.

With nobody to hold your hand or guide you through it Myspace did something very clever. Everybody who signed up was welcomed, hosted and befriended by Tom.

Myspace Tom

Today Myspace is in terminal decline but there’s a legacy worth recognising. It planted the seed for ideas that Facebook has written large and increasingly the benefits of web based, workplace communities are being explored. That business application might seem like a logical progression but for many it’s another strange new alien world.

One of the popular internal social networks is Yammer. In design it has a familiar Facebookesque feed at its heart asking you the Twitterstyled question ‘what are you working on?’ and there are plenty of other features to play with (groups, polls, share files, etc). It’s free to set up and that meets most needs but there are benefits to the full version (albeit for an eye-watering $5 per user per month). Some councils have been using it to good effect.

Yammer has been in Hull for a couple of years with a current network of 420 members (although over 70 of these have left the council). As you can see, growth hasn’t been steady – after an initial surge at launch only 11 people joined between 06/2009 and 08/2010. The growth of the last 9 months has mostly come from within Streetscene.

Social networks rely on viral growth – people need to invite their friends, who will invite theirs ad infinitum. When someone new joins the Hull network they’re usually followed by one or two from their team and although their automatic joining post might generate a few ‘hello, how are you’ responses it quickly peters out.

Three people have sent 600 messages between them, which sounds promising, but the total for the two years is 1,826. Even though I’m in the minority that sees its potential I’m not using it as effectively as I might – for all I believe in shared dialogue I’m mostly broadcasting things I’ve seen elsewhere to prompt discussion. Sometimes they do: one notable example was sharing Dan Slee‘s post on how to innovate in the winter which resulted in our being on Tumblr, Posterous and Facebook.

It’s difficult to engage in a vacuum and the truth is that most of our membership isn’t thinking about Yammer any more. Even though they might have signed up they won’t be getting messages, they won’t be thinking it has any relevance and, thus far, nobody has been supporting or encouraging people to use it in any structured way.

So can Yammer work in the public sector? The experience of those councils linked to earlier suggests yes. But I doubt they’re acts of spontaneous creation, no doubt they’ve been started by a group of people who think it makes sense, who have built a vibrant and active community having conversations, being provocative, inviting discussion and providing a model to emulate.

It’s good that Yammer wasn’t imposed by corporate edict but brand new green shoots need to be nurtured rather than simply left to their own devices. Familiarity in design makes Yammer understandable but its habits are not those of Facebook. Its peers – Flickr, YouTube and Twitter – don’t create content for you to enjoy, they host what you share with others. Remove the individual images, videos or updates and they would be rendered as barren as Hull City Council’s Yammer.

If you leave Yammer as a wasteland without investing time and trouble to cultivate a community then nobody will care. And in Hull nobody does.

Hence the need to remember Tom.

He didn’t leave you alone when you joined, he messaged you and gave you an introduction to MySpace. Such hand-holding paid dividends for newbies who got the confidence to explore.

If internal social tools are a shock to the culture there’s a lesson in this about being deliberate in building community. Having not seen success I can only make a guess at how you’d do that:

  • make a point of welcoming people who join
  • ask them why they’ve joined and what they expect from it
  • and listen to what they say so you can suggest things for them to do with it
  • and when people start sharing, encourage them with recognition (and use global emails or other internal communication to highlight these things off-Yammer)

And for those who stop talking? Email them, or give them a call. Find out how they’re using Yammer, not to berate them but to find out whether there’s any way of enticing them to get more involved.

You could even go over and talk about it face to face because this isn’t a global website where your ‘friend’ Tom is a distant and aloof CEO. You’re a colleague who can build real world rapport with people.

Doing that for everyone would need a massive resource. So don’t do it for everybody – the hope must be to ignite a viral expansion.

I wrote earlier this week about the resources Stoke and Hull have committed so that digital sits at the heart of their organisations. As important as considering what that means for public-facing activity top of their priorities must be spreading enthusiasm internally. Maybe the litmus test for whoever gets that job here is whether they can rescue our relationship with Yammer?

About Benjamin Welby

Hi, I'm Benjamin Welby. I'm a displaced northerner currently living in Croydon, I church with a group of Christians who meet in a Soho nightclub on Wednesdays and I support Bradford City. I've an academic background in History, Politics and International Development. I work for the Government Digital Service but I left my heart in local government. This blog is infrequently updated and may feature any, all or none of these things...