The refreshing side of Facebook fatigue

The blogosphere is getting tired of all the talk about Facebook fatigue, but enterprise IT users are dealing with their own kind of exhaustion.

After cruising a wave of hype and adulation that at times felt like one big online party, Facebook (along with similar social networking sites) is dealing with a rather prolonged morning after. About a month ago, Web measurement firm comScore reported a double-digit percentage drop in the average length of visits. Facebook growth outside of North America has also slowed somewhat. No one is expecting Facebook to close its doors anytime soon, but it’s almost as though we all expected its momentum to continue indefinitely, in a way that hasn’t been true of any technology product or service with the possible exception of Google.

Contrast that with the expectations of IT managers in a typical business environment. More often than not escalating costs, incompatible platforms, project management quagmires and other issues leave little certainty that business software will be deployed at all. Once it is, adoption is by no means a foregone conclusion: managers often have to institute Draconian policies that force employees to migrate from legacy systems or even manual processes to a newer set of applications. Just as I don’t imagine any IT manager really supposes her next application will take off like Facebook among her users, we should have been better prepared for Facebook’s see-sawing demand.

In a business environment, “fatigue” is often a pre-built part of the configuration. Upgrades or new systems are developed out of frustration with the old system, and those frustrations are often carried over. Adoption as viral as Facebook is rare in the enterprise, if not unheard of, like a fever dream of knowledge management experts who don’t admit that people are far more likely to connect for personal rather than for professional reasons. In some ways, however, Facebook’s meteoric rise and sudden stumble are not unlike a lot of work-related collaboration portals and tools.

How many times, for example, has a business created an internal Web site or platform to connect with customers and partners which launches with a flurry of activity, only to subside in a few short months or weeks? Part of the problem is that we think we deploy technology to improve productivity, processes or business results. What we actually want, however, is for technology to change human behaviours. Instead of thinking in blanket terms of “adoption” or “resistance” we should think about whether an application or device fosters the correct habits. Although in his 1960s book Psych-Cybernetics Maxwell Malz suggested habits took only 21 days to form, there’s not a lot of evidence to back him up.

Perhaps Facebook fatigue is not a sign that habits haven’t been formed but that they happen in stages. Like the telephone or even e-mail, habits can still take root even once the thrill of early adoption subsides. Frequency and intensity of use may decline but overall dependence or appreciation of the platform may provide for more sustainable, long-term growth. IT managers know that even fatigued users eventually find the energy to make the most of the tools they are given. Similarly, as late adoption settles in, Facebook will start to learn who its real friends are.

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