The Rise and Fall of Work Media

Users are migrating away from web 2.0-era social tools, and quickly

(Want to get insights into emerging tech on a more regular basis? Sign up for the official Traction Report newsletter here).

I started using the term social tools in 1999 — ‘tools intended to shape culture’ and not just speed up communication or increase productivity — as an effort to make a distinction between the diffuse term collaboration that had grown up from the pre-internet groupware and workflow markets.

Today, the term collaboration has been used for so long, in so many contexts, and to describe so many activities that it’s been totally drained of emotive force and declarative focus. Collaboration just means ‘to work together’, so having a conversation in the cafeteria or sending a fax is collaboration, just like posting a direct message on Slack or creating a task on Trello. Let’s use that omnibus expression in only the most general way, therefore, and when discussing the social tools people use to communicate, coordinate, and cooperate at work we’d be better off with more specific terms. Let me back up a bit, though, before I introduce some.


Today, the term collaboration has been used for so long, in so many contexts, and to describe so many activities that it’s been totally drained of emotive force and declarative focus.

The recent sale of Jive to Aurea, a software consolidator backed by ESW Capital, has motivated me to recapitulate my thoughts about the changing state of social tools at work and their use. Jive came out of the Web 2.0 era, but a lot has changed since then.

Back to Web 2.0

Tim O’Reilly is perhaps the person most responsible for the spread of the idea of Web 2.0, going back to 2004¹. At its core the idea of Web 2.0 was the web as a platform with a variety of new services via APIs that would allow for the more rapid creation of content and applications. These, in turn, would be based on new levels of flexibility and unleash more dynamic experiences and services than ever before.

These capabilities led to the explosion of the social web, which had been slowly growing through blogs, but was accelerated by RSS, tagging, wikis, and the emergence of social networks like Friendster, MySpace, Linkedin, Bebo, and Facebook. In 2005, MySpace was getting as many page hits as Google. By 2005, the term social media was well-established as a catch-all for blogs, social networks, and related or derivative messaging ‘chat’ systems.

The patterns of interaction popularized by social networks led to the creation of enterprise social networks (or, as I call them, work media tools, based on their roots in social media.) Note that the emergence and adoption of work media tools — like Yammer, Jive, Chatter, Podio, Socialcast, and dozens of others — displaced the earlier, pre-web-2.0 social tools like Socialtext, Lotus Notes, and eRoom, which had been based on earlier concepts of social tools for work.

Categories of Social Tools for Work

Here’s a chart that shows different sorts of social tools for work. Note that this is not exhaustive: there are many other sorts of social tools at use in the enterprise. I detail some of these in this post.

Some social tools for work

Work media is efficient at broadly distributing information relevant to many (think social media), but not organized around narrowly distributing information relevant to few (think chat rooms).

Let’s look at message centric tools as our starting point. Yammer, Jive, and other work media tools are based on ‘following’ as the central metaphor. A user can follow topics, individuals, or projects, meaning that media posted by followed individuals, topics, and projects show up in the follower’s activity stream, and other’s may follow the individual, or the contexts in which they post content. This is quite similar to the experience that users have in Facebook, Twitter, and other social networks or social media.

The reality is that the work media model is not really geared to the social scale of getting things done in small teams, but is more oriented toward communicating across larger social groups.

I use the term sets for small, team-sized groups (less than a dozen, typically), and scenes for a network of sets (less than 150, typically). Companies can be much larger, comprising a network of scenes, or spheres (with hundreds or thousands of people)².


The reality is that the work media model is not really geared to the social scale of getting things done in small teams, but is more oriented toward communicating across larger social groups.

Work Media is best suited for business divisions (scenes) and whole companies (spheres), because of the nature of follow-centric social patterns, which leans toward asymmetric relationships. Just because you follow me, doesn’t mean I follow you. Work media is efficient at broadly distributing information relevant to many (think social media), but not organized around narrowly distributing information relevant to few (think chat rooms).

We are seeing a migration from work media to work chat (Slack, HipChat, Fleep, etc.) because of the differences in social orientation. Most work is performed at the level of the individual or the small team (the set). So, as workers gain more say in what tools they want to use, they will naturally gravitate to tools that help them where they actually work, in small teams. And they will migrate away from tools more oriented toward distributing information to the many, or broadcasting, which is more the province of management. I wrote about some additional angles of this in Understanding the Failed Promise of ‘Social Collaboration’ and What’s Wrong with Social Collaboration Tools? Everything. In that latter document, I wrote about the mismatch between today’s agile and flexible models of work and earlier approaches:

The Web 2.0 generation of [social] tools were (largely) contrived around an idealized company that may have existed at an earlier time, but certainly doesn’t match today’s work environment.

We are also seeing the migration into work processing tools (which I’ve written about extensively: see Work Processing: Coming soon to a ‘Doc’ near you, and ‘Work Processing’ and the decline of the (Wordish) Document), as well as work management tools (see Work Management in Theory: Context), as those categories of tools have gained broader social communications capabilities similar to those found in work media and work chat applications. This also contributes to the defection from work media tools, as those who feel their work is better managed in modern docs- or task-oriented systems adopt tools like Asana, Trello, Quip, or Notion.

This migration is the proximate cause for the decline in market interest in Jive, which was acquired for $462 million last week, a precipitous drop from its peak of $1.7 billion in 2012. This is also the reason that Microsoft has brought its work chat solution Teams to market, despite acquiring Yammer for $1.2 billion in 2012.

The Future of Social Tools for Work

John F Kennedy once said

Success has many fathers, but failure is an orphan.

Work media has become orphaned by its failure to deliver on the increased productivity that was — implicitly or explicitly — the main theme in the work media narrative. Both former work media users and those that never used or even heard of Yammer, Jive, or other work media solution are buying in on the features and futures of work chat. And this sense of buying into a new vision of how work gets done at the level of the small team, or set, is true to some extent for the more recent attempts at work management and work processing, as well.

And at any rate, we are still awash in other social tools in the enterprise, like the unkillable email, the always-just-about-to-become-ubiquitous video conferencing, the under-appreciated shared calendar, widely-adopted file sync-and-share solutions, and the range of ‘consumer’ tools that people use at work, despite what the IT department would like.


It may be just as likely that an ‘artificial’ agent — meaning an AI smart enough to act as an independent agent — might be as likely to task me to do something as I am to task them. The artificial agent might even be the project lead. That will be a big, big shift to assimilate.

Some thoughts about the future of social tools for work:

  1. Work chat will continue as the dominant — but not the exclusive — social motif of the next few years, and will pull all other forms of social tools into its gravity well. So video conferencing, for example, will come to be seen as a subsidiary form of communication running alongside today’s mainstream mode of communication, which will be chat text. Likewise services like email, task management, calendaring and so on will increasingly be judged or valued by their integration into and support of a chat-centric, set-centric world of work.
  2. Augmented reality (via goggles) and AI-enabled voice interfaces will become a prevalent aspect of computing and communications, and will have a serious impact on work social tools. (Imagine bots that listen in on spoken conversations and capture decisions made and tasks assigned, as just the most obvious first-order examples. And display them in AR as we walk in the park.)
  3. As AI capabilities are developed to augment what humans are doing (and for humans to augment what AI’s are doing), our tools will have to include them more as participants and less like integrations to other tools. A bot of 2018 might be a full-fledged member of my work team, and not an appliance that the humans use. It may be just as likely that an artificial agent³ — meaning an AI smart enough to act as an independent agent— might be as likely to task me to do something as I am to task them. The artificial agent might even be the project lead in my set. That will be a big, big shift to assimilate.

  1. Although it was coined in 1999 by Dancy DiNucci.
  2. A team of seven people working on a consulting project ABC at company XYZ are a set, but they are also part of the design consulting group at XYZ, which can be considered a network of sets, or a scene. Note that individuals can be members of many teams, just to make things messy, and sets can be part of more than one scene, as well. The ABC set is also part of the company’s video development scene, for example, which involves groups in many other locations and functions. Note that Scenes can be hundreds or thousands of people in size. The design consulting group is only one scene of many at XYZ’s consulting practice, which can be considered a network of scenes, or a sphere. Spheres can include thousands or even millions of members, and some organizations have networks of spheres in them: for example, consider the US Army (around 2 million, including reserves) or UPS (434,000 workers). The world can be viewed as a network of spheres, too.
  3. Or artificial, for short.