On the Internet, nobody knows you're a suit

What is so different about working online? Why do social media scare the sh*t out of many organizational decision-makers?

As I wrote last year, working online is different:

But it’s not about the technology. The real issue is getting people used to working at a distance. For instance, everything has to be transparent for collaborative work to be effective online. Using wikis or Google Documents means that everyone can see what the others have contributed. There is no place to hide. For example, I once developed a Request for Proposals with a large group distributed across several time zones. Everyone could provide input for a specified period of time and then that issue was closed. Later, some people complained that their requirements were not being addressed. I was able to look at the revision history of the wiki and show that they had not even contributed on those issues. This stopped the complaints and we were able to move on.

A major aspect of online collaboration is that our symbols of power are stripped bare. No one knows what kind of fancy suit you’re wearing or if you have an expensive watch on your wrist [which only old folks use anyway]. Nobody has seen you drive into your private parking spot with your high price car. You are what you contribute. That’s it.

Computer technology has been a great equalizer in our society. I can buy one of the best computers on the market and the richest person in the world is not able to get one that performs much better. Consumer technology devices are great equalizers. I probably have as much computational power as most CEO’s of major technology firms. Actually, I may have more, because my system has not been crippled by the IT department.

The collaborative, networked enterprise saw its birth in open source software projects. From these widely dispersed groups we got blogs, wikis and micro-sharing as tools to help get things done. But these groups are fairly egalitarian. You’re as good as your code. The suits weren’t invited.

You see, on the Internet, nobody knows you’re a suit … and that’s a major barrier to adoption.

Image: The New Yorker, 1993

9 Responses to “On the Internet, nobody knows you're a suit”

  1. Steve lambert

    Harold, I love the statement “because my system has not been crippled by the IT department”. I think you know how much i can relate to that situation. IT has this fraglile line to walk between protecting information and providing employees the access necessary to develop into fully contributing professionals with robust external networks. The companies who cripple this connection to then outside world do so at their own peril.

  2. Kelly Meeker

    It’s a flatter world and the future of the organization is truly flat. Anyone who tries to reproduce old-fashioned hierarchies in the networked world is absolutely wasting their time! You’ve made the point aphoristically and beautifully.

    Just like the future role of the learning professional is going to be facilitating connections and communications, rather than actually creating the resources.


    – Kelly (@OpenSesameNow)

  3. Jon Husband

    Hmm .. I think I believe it’s bumpy and lumpy, around and around, in & out, up & down .. but not truly flat. I’m probably wrong.

    I think we will see the wholesale adoption of *temporary* hierarchies, depending upon what we want to get done and what’s happening.

    I don’t think hierarchy as such is going anywhere soon. I wouldn’t mind, tho’ being wrong.

    Hierarchy can be very useful at times.

  4. Jon Husband

    .. but not old-fashioned (as you put it) position-based stable hierarchy.

  5. Daniel Christian

    “Computer technology has been a great equalizer in our society.”

    “But these groups are fairly egalitarian. You’re as good as your code. The suits weren’t invited.”

    Loved the posting Harold — great call!

    Daniel Christian

  6. Keith Lyons


    (and to overcome the rejection of the one word comment …

    “Your comment was a bit too short. Please go back and try again.”)

    I did try again, Harold. Thanks for the post.

  7. Stephen Downes

    Good points… but the reality is a bit more nuanced.

    On the internet, you _could_ make it known that you’re a suit, by acting the way a suit does, and saying suit-like things.

    The problem is, nobody will put up with it. You can’t get away with acting like a suit on the internet, because people will unfriend you and bloggers won’t link to you.

  8. Damon Oldcorn

    Sometimes the email/internet lacks the force of personality. Agree sometimes that transpsrency is good for getting the project off to a fast start and keeping it ticking along. But sometimes that experience that has been gained over the years does not translate so easily in this format and is lost to the cause.

  9. Hedgeblonde

    If the ‘suit’ is your client and they prefer to ignore your suggestions for improvements to the work process, including collaborative working using Google Docs or Spkype, then you have to bow to them. If people ignore e-mail, yet are the invoiced party, no amount of well-intended, efficient, innovative improvements will sway them. I find in work these days that the brave new world that appeared on the horizon around Dotcom days is still dawning. IT ignorance is no respecter of age. There is a lot of wheel reinvention amongst younger colleagues. In contrast to popular perception, older peers are often better at adopting new technology, along the lines of, “Oh yeah, this is like when I switched from DOS 4 to Windows, but easier.”


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