Connecting Social Networks & Work

My goal in this post is to connect two things that for most of us are viewed as very different: social networks and work.

Today, these things are superficially linked in our minds. For an individual, a social network like Twitter or Instagram is seen mostly as that distracting thing you can't help checking while at work. In this way, work and social networks are competing for your attention, but the competition goes much deeper than this.

I think it's useful to view social networks and work as being on a continuum of human organization. And even more, this continuum is increasingly collapsing. The future of work will look more like social networks, and the future of social networks will look more like work.

First let's start by examining what I mean by human organization. I would characterize it as the coordination of people and resources towards a productive pursuit.

When you look at traditional work, coordination itself is tightly controlled. Businesses are mostly hierarchical and are designed for efficient management oversight. They have strict processes for people joining them (I.e., job applications & interviews). Management also has a great deal of control over how and when work is done. Finally, coordination is motivated through cash compensation, which is the end-game of the business as well.

Now, let's look at social networks. Networks by definition are not hierarchical and don't exercise control through management. Instead it comes down to the system design of incentives. Through the traditional lens of business you might say that Facebook is an organization of 35,000 employees that generated $55B in revenue in 2018. Instead it's more like Facebook is an organization of 2.3 billion people that generated $55B in revenue in 2018. 35K of these people were compensated with cash and stock. The other 2.3B were compensated with an audience (when they post) and entertaining content (when they consume).

So how are these things collapsing?

100% Remote Work Orgs

In the realm of work one of the more interesting trends is around 100% remote organizations.

In these orgs, control is increasingly loosened as people work when and where they want. Employees in these organizations can still get the traditional compensation of corporations (salary + stock) but with more of the relative freedom of networks.

Action-Oriented Networks

In the realm of social networks there are increasing questions from users over whether their time is well spent on networks like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. There's an increasing sense that our participation here can be toxic for our health and not a good use of time. Here there's been more questions than answers. While people are starting to spend less time on these networks, they haven't found better arrangements en masse yet. I like Rebecca Kaden's perspective at USV. The next wave of social networks will be more action-oriented. This doesn't mean the traditional ones are going away. Sharing and consuming media will always be fundamental. But people want more/different compensation and to coordinate on more productive things.

The meeting point of social networks and work

The truth is that the collapse of networks and work is already happening much more dramatically than what I've shared. It's just in areas that the majority of us don't contribute to currently.

There is of course the whole "Gig Economy" trend. A company like Uber has millions of drivers that have even more freedom than the employees of 100% remote organizations.

In software you have open source software where developers have been coordinating in productive pursuits with little to no traditional management. Wikipedia is another good example here -- thousands of writers loosely coordinating to produce a single text.

Still these examples are extremely small when compared to the billions contributing to social networks and traditional businesses.

The opportunity going forward is to marry the freedom and productivity of a network like Wikipedia, with the upside in compensation of traditional businesses (salary & stock). In the not so distant future, I think our contributions at work and social networks will converge in such opportunities and the distinction between the two will be less strict than it is today.

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