Facebook is coming to work! By which, we mean, Facebook is legitimately coming to work—because, be honest, you're always on Facebook, sheepishly minimizing it when your boss walks by. Now, Facebook wants to be work.
The product at hand is something called—go figure—Facebook at Work. It is a version of Facebook that's designed for the office environment, so that instead of sharing and talking about weekend photos, you'll be sharing and talking about corporate projects. In previews, it seems to be a kind of mirror-universe counterpart to normal-Facebook: familiar, but instead of being coloured blue, it's coloured white. (This makes it easier for the boss to determine if you're using Facebook at Work.) You can log in with your regular Facebook account, which then creates a parallel-but-linked work account.
There is a news feed, just as in normal-Facebook, in which posts stream by from contacts throughout the company. The app hasn't been released to the unwashed masses yet, but select businesses are testing it.
There is a lot of groupware in corporate life these days—tools like Basecamp and Yammer. They are good and fine pieces of software, but there are a lot of them. The first day of work at a new job can involve signing up for all the pieces of software the company uses; the second day is a lot of trying to remember the passwords you selected on the first. This is one point Facebook says it has in its favour: Pretty much everyone already knows how to use it and already has an account to sign up with.
Whether it will work for users is harder to say. Facebook says the project originated with a tool the company itself uses for internal collaboration. Still, since this is Facebook, it is built on the premise that people will want to interact with co-workers in the same way they do socially.
This seems like a dicey proposition. If using social media in a personal context means suffering through the posturing and preening of friends, imagine it in the context of people you didn't choose to be around in the first place. If navigating the politics of Facebook "friends" is already a headache, then what about people upon whose goodwill your career depends? Could you ever unfriend anyone on Facebook at Work? Could you even mute someone without fear of missing a memo? Can you afford not to like your boss's post? It sounds like a little social hell.
It's not just that Facebook is trying to transpose a social product into the workplace; it's that its core product has evolved over the years to maximize engagement, to keep users glued to the site. Everything about Facebook encourages you to click, and keep clicking. There are endless opportunities to engage—nothing exists that can't be commented on or liked, and every like notifies someone that they've been liked, drawing them back to the site to revel in being liked and to like more things themselves. That's well and good, unless you're trying to get something done. By its very nature, Facebook exists to maximize process, not output—and unless it totally rejects its own lineage, Facebook at Work will, too.
Many of the entrants in the groupware category take their lead from mainstream social networks. But this lineage issue might be why software that isn't patterned after Facebook at all is making the biggest splash. The product that might well have spurred Facebook to action is an app called Slack that has come rocketing out of nowhere, reaching a $1-billion valuation in eight months flat.
Slack is a deceptively simple platform that looks, at first blush, like a big collection of chat rooms—and that's really what it is. The catch is that its creators (including its Canadian CEO and co-founder of Flickr, Stewart Butterfield) have brought the best features of social networks, e-mail and document-sharing, and grafted them onto the chat concept. Like a social network, you can tag people in conversations, so if somebody makes a request for your attention somewhere in a conversation, you'll hear about it. You can have public or private chats. You can paste in documents or pieces from almost any source, and it will show up right in the chat, whether it's a sound file or an animated GIF. And like e-mail, conversations are archived and readily searchable, leaving a documented paper-trail—all without the productivity overhead of e-mail salutations, subject lines, sending and receiving.
Slack's stated goal is to unify all the informal ways that colleagues communicate: One pair of workers might hammer out day-to-day work issues on Gchat all day long, while another group might run up big, long e-mail chains. And who knows how they're transferring documents: E-mail? Dropbox? Thumb drive?
But, in practice, its greatest offer is simply to do the opposite of what Facebook does—Slack gets out of the way. Whereas Facebook is designed to gin up interactions where there might otherwise be none, Slack steps back and assumes that people who talk at work are talking for a reason, and tries to support them in doing so. It is clean and simple and fast to use, and if it's almost fun, it's because it's transparent and painless.
At the end of the day, there are two schools of thought about these tools. One is that people don't really want to be at work, and since they'd rather be on Facebook, they need to be placated with off-brand, Facebook-at-work environments that transpose the social world onto the workplace. The other is that people actually want to get work done, in the least painful way possible. My money would be on the latter.