Why activity streams should not be filtered

Activity streams have established their position at the core of the social intranet. Some even consider them as the replacement of email. However, this is a dangerous interpretation to make, because activity streams are by their nature ill-suited to replace email in all the purposes it is used for. They are a very good replacement when it comes to purposes email was never particularly good for, but a full analogy is not very solid.

In this post, I will look into what activity streams are good for, and why that means that they should not be filtered.

Activity stream at the heart of the social intranet

Activity streams are good for improving situational awareness and driving traffic to important topics – and, indeed, for distinguishing between important topics and less important topics, as important topics by virtue of receiving more replies receive even more visibility in the stream.

They can perform this task only if they are sufficiently visible. I can heartily recommend giving a third of your intranet home page to an activity stream to ensure it has the prominence it needs.

By increasing transparency, activity streams significantly increase the level of serendipity: people who would otherwise not be involved with things become aware of them, and often have surprising ways to contribute to whatever the matter is.

Activity stream as a replacement for email results in filter bubbles

From the above, it should be quite clear that activity stream does not do what email does. If we consider email to be one-to-one or small group conversation where each of the participants is meant to react to the message, that is a task ill-suited for an activity stream. In fact, this misconception is at the heart of a dangerous movement: increased filtering of activity streams. If you are expected to read everything in your activity stream, you need to limit the amount of information there, for which you need to apply algorithms and filters, which in turn results in a filter bubble, a state where you only see what you are expected to see. Serendipity, improved awareness, and increased traffic to important topics just went down the drain.

The argument then goes that we can improve the filters so that popular content passes through. This, however, creates a catch-22 situation: in order for content to pass the filter, it needs to receive likes and comments, and in order to receive likes and comments, someone needs to see the content.

Increased transparency and engaging a pre-determined set of participants can co-exist, and a social intranet is a fabulous tool to create this co-existence, but the activity stream is not the tool to accomplish that. The tool is using a wiki as a workspace combined with email notifications to selected people. Now we’re using email the way it’s meant to be used, and keep the important information on an open platform.

Activity stream can replace shotgun email

Shotgun email is a particular type of email an activity stream can successfully replace. It is an email sent to multiple people in the hope that at least one will react. By having the issue appear in an activity stream, the number of potential readers is multiplied significantly, while the intrusiveness of the message is lowered. A perfect win-win situation!

Making the case for serendipity

It has been well-established that activity streams successfully drive serendipity. I have written about some real-life examples before myself as well. The key criticism to address here is a simple but powerful question: Are all these instances of serendipity just clutch solutions to process issues? If we had a perfectly functional operating model, would there be any need for serendipity?

While I have no doubt that some of the cases could be worked out through processes as well, I do not see how all of them could. Here are three key aspects to consider:

Serendipity reduces lead time. A familiar tale from internal feedback management: a design engineer spotted and fixed a problem before the process was able to assign it to him, because he spotted the issue from the activity stream as it was reported. Sure, lead time can be reduced by conventional means, but it is extremely unlikely to achieve such results: basically it would require an intelligent algorithm that is able to determine the correct person to solve an issue based on a free-form description. Note that this type of serendipity increases variation, so it is not desirable for all processes.

Serendipity enables the use of hidden competencies. You never know exactly who knows what. People know a great deal of things outside their job descriptions through hobbies, for example, and it is impossible to keep track of everything everyone knows to determine who could have meaningful input to give. Even if we could develop an algorithm that could keep track of it all, that would mean that privacy is completely dead. Maybe that is what the future holds? Still, people have a tendency to have surprising skills.

Flipping it around: providing solutions to unrelated issues. Even if you know everyone who can contribute to solve your issue, do you know everyone who might benefit from the solution? By publishing the solution and making it visible through the activity stream, you may solve an unrelated issue at the same time.

Key takeaway: it is perfectly OK not to read everything in an activity stream

Thus, the whole nature of an activity stream is not that you look into it all in great detail. Hey, it doesn’t even hurt if you miss something entirely. An activity stream can function perfectly well as a vehicle for serendipity without everything being read by everyone – indeed, in any but the smallest of organizations, it is counterproductive for everyone to read everything.

This is a difficult change of mindset, but it is a necessary one in order to be able to fully benefit from social collaboration tools. The analogy to email hurts the adoption of this mindset and brings about ideas, such as filtering, that turn an activity stream into more of an email replacement, but that is not an area where it excels at. Put your activity stream to a good use, do not filter out its benefits.

Photo: Hartwell Dam Spillway Release by U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Savannah District @ Flickr (CC)

Author: Ville Kilkku

I run my own consultancy business, so if you find the ideas on this blog intriguing, contact me at consulting@kilkku.com or call me at +358 50 588 5043 and we can discuss how I can help you solve your business problems. I am currently based in Finland, but work globally.