When Good Communication Goes Bad

March 4, 2016, 8:53 PM UTC
The Scream.
One of several versions of the painting "The Scream" by the Norwegian artist Edvard Munch (1864-1944). This work was produced c 1893. (Photo by: Universal History Archive/UIG via Getty Images)
Photograph by UIG via Getty Images

For many people who work in distributed organizations—and often from home offices—real-time messaging applications such as Slack, Jive (JIVE), and Yammer, et al., are vital lifelines. But few people stop with those. News junkies rely on Twitter as their de facto news feed as well as a conduit for seeking out quotes and expertise on the fly.

So, it was interesting to read new research by BetterCloud finding that 57% of big companies surveyed use two or more real-time messaging products. But more surprisingly, 20% of those big shops use five (five!) or more of these applications. That seemed a stunning number—until I thought about my own personal use of such tools.

At work, our editorial team essentially lives on Slack. But on a personal level, things fragment fast.

For certain contacts, Google (GOOG) Chat or Hangouts are the communications channels of choice. For podcasting buddies, Microsoft’s (MSFT) Skype is the go-to choice.

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Then there is, as mentioned, Twitter (TWTR), which makes for five messaging apps for me alone.

But wait, there’s more! There are some long-time friends and sources who prefer to communicate via Facebook (FB) messaging, and for other business contacts, LinkedIn (LNKD) messages are still important. That brings the count to seven.

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And, to be honest, if Apple (AAPL) hadn’t dropped support for it, I’d still be on AOL Instant Messenger, the great granddaddy of this type of product. (In theory, you can access AOL IM via iChat, but it’s too painful to keep up.)

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Gleb Budman, chief executive of Backblaze, shares the pain of over-connectedness. He also has contacts on Google Chat and Hangouts, LinkedIn, and Facebook—and pretty much uses whatever channel is most appropriate for that person.

As a company, Backblaze tried out Sqwiggle, a presence-based instant chat application for a bit before switching to its current platform, Slack. He agrees managing all those channels is a handful.

“Sometimes I’ll get a message from someone on Facebook, and they’ll send me a LinkedIn message as well.” he said. The problem then becomes, what is the best way to respond?

This, he notes, is a throwback to the heyday of instant messaging when AOL (AOL), Yahoo (YHOO) Messenger, and MSN Messenger were all duking it out for mind- and market-share. Almost everyone ended up with multiple accounts and then had to resort to yet another application, Trillian, to manage all those multiple accounts in one place.

The problem now is that the latest flock of real-time tools cannot be knit together, said David Politis, chief executive of BetterCloud, a New York-based company that helps customers use and manage their cloud applications.

Ironically, BetterCloud had its own challenges there.

“We used Hipchat, Hangouts, Skype for Business, and Slack, and we were just 150 people. We had to make some decisions or we’d have problems with archiving,” he noted. The company ended up standardizing on Slack for internal users but uses Google Hangouts for external interactions.

Alas, he points out, there is no Trillian equivalent for today’s instant chat applications because none of them are particularly open and receptive to integrating with the others. You can’t tie Slack, for example into Google Hangouts, he said.

Update: As is often the case, once this story posted, a company, Sameroom.io, asserted that it can connect different real-time technologies.

So one problem is the lack of integration for diverse applications. The other is the sheer cacophony of all those inputs, which turns useful tools into a distraction. The question, then, is: Does the new utility of the tools outweigh the noise?

“I think it’s a wash,” Politis said.


Note: This story was updated at 10:49 a.m. March 5, 2016 to reflect Sameroom.io’s claims.

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