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The Virtual Water-Cooler: A Qualitative Study on Micro-blogging at Work

7 July 2009

Zhao and Rosson’s description and analysis of one IT company’s micro-blogging practices strung together very nicely observations and survey results about the role of informal work communications (i.e. water-cooler conversations) in fostering collaborative work, how emerging computer-mediated communication technologies (CMC) such as Twitter are increasing productivity, the relational and personal benefits of informal communication, and lastly, patterns and implementation considerations that emerged from their qualitative study.

Informal Communication has (beneficial) consequences. In emphasizing the “beneficial consequences” of informal communication, Zhao and Rosson call on social psychology to explain how informal communication leads to interpersonal attraction (based on physical proximity, familiarity and similarity), promoting (virtual) feelings of proximity with colleagues. As relational (person perception, common ground and connectedness) and personal (valuable information to personal interests/goals) benefits are enhanced by informal communication, weak ties, the most common social relationships in personal social networks increase the level of informal communication throughout one’s social network, thus increasing the sharing and gaining of information (Zhao & Rosson, p. 244).

Why they use Twitter. The findings from the study reported that participants used Twitter for range of social and work-related purposes: keeping in touch with friends and colleagues, raising visibility of issues related to their social networks, personal and professional information-gathering, seeking real-time help and feedback, and release of emotional stress (p. 245). Additionally, the study found that Twitter caused participants to be brief and concise. Given 140 characters, one has to be brief but succinct (p. 248). One participant remarked that the limited number of characters cut the effort involved in sharing information with colleagues: “If I am doing something, my effort to share it with someone should be minimum” (p. 247).

Does micro-blogging work for everyone? I found the section on “Potential Impacts on Informal Communication at Work” mostly relevant to large companies whose units rarely had the opportunity to interact with one another. I can see this working with large corporations, but for a smaller organization, how can micro-blogging enhance relationships of people who see and talk with each other every day? Additionally, with employees so comfortable with email and phone correspondences, how do smoothly move to this mode of communication that relies on participation.

Stating the Obvious? Though Zhao and Rosson may be stating the obvious for those who ‘get’ Twitter, it does provide very clear examples of the how and why of micro-blogging, as well as potential implementation issues that organizations may want to consider before getting on the Twitter train. I’d be interested in seeing a study of an organization’s path from inquiry to implementation/integration of micro-blogging in the workplace.

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