Paul Holmes 31 May 2011 // 8:09AM GMT
I ignored the first 10 or 20 stories I saw based on this survey, despite the fact that some of them appeared at quite reputable websites. After all, many media have a lot of space to fill and budget cuts mean they can’t produce enough of their own copy. And the headline—which alleges that “social media tools… cost millions in work interruptions”—is pretty compelling. But with some of the top social media sites reporting the findings of the survey uncritically, there’s a very real danger that some readers will start to take it seriously, so it’s time to raise some questions. The first question is whether we can really trust self-reported behavior. If I’m reading the press release right, harmon.ie (the social e-mail software company behind the survey) asked people to report on their own work patterns, estimating the time they lose to “distractions” such as e-mail, switching windows, and updating their Facebook profiles. I suspect most people don’t actually keep accurate records of this kind of thing, so we are left with estimates of questionable reliability. The second question is how much of the time allegedly wasted was being used productively in the first place. The survey estimates that workers lose an hour a day because of digital distractions. Even if that’s true, is there any reason to believe that hour was being spent productively before social media came along? Before the computer was invented, did people really sit glued to their desks, working without distraction? Or have people always found reasons—water cooler conversations, phone calls, etc.—to take a break from the daily grind? (And—third question—is it possible that taking a break every now and again makes people more productive?) The fourth question is whether any attempt was made to measure the positive impact of these technologies. I don’t see anything in the press release that looks at the productivity benefits of digital and social media, which would help us examine the possibility that there has been a net productivity gain from social media, whether the $10,000 a person cost of “wasted productivity” might be offset by some apparently unconsidered advantages. And finally, the fifth question is how these horrible, productivity-draining, value-sapping distractions can be reconciled with studies suggesting that organizations that exhibit higher levels of social media engagement are more profitable. Brands that encourage their people to engage through social media have stronger revenues, gross and net profits than those that are less engaged. I can’t help wondering whether the headline would have been quite so attention-grabbing if reporters had dug up the answers to those few questions.