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Internet memes at work

How an online meme can give a glance into company culture

People use social media to discuss what's happening at work, whether it's dealing with technical issues, spending time in meetings and conference calls, or discussing the strategic direction of their company. A pair of IBM researchers wrote about an instance of this workplace chatter, and how businesses could improve – if they're listening.

What is a meme?
Biologist Richard Dawkins first used the term meme (meem) in his book The Selfish Gene – as a parallel to genes – "to refer to any cultural entity that an observer might consider a replicator, such as songs or fashion."
In November 2011, two IBM employees started #stuffibmerssay on Twitter. The short-lived
meme of a little more than 3,000 tweets by 725 participants highlighted in a humorous way — things that sometimes frustrate IBMers: work-related procedures, technology failures, conference call behaviors, and more.

On the surface, it may have seemed that the hashtag reflected nothing more than
employees joking openly (and potentially creating headache for management), yet the content of the tweets provided something more - real insights into the culture of the company.

"#Stuffibmerssay reflected what it's like to work at almost any large corporation. Employees are naturally talking about these things online; employers should learn from them," said Dr. Jennifer Thom, a research scientist with IBM's Collaborative End User Experience Group. Thom and colleague David Millen wrote Stuff IBMers Say: Microblogs as an Expression of Organizational Culture.

3,085 tweets, 725 participants, 29% was commentary about work related procedures, 17% were jokes and banter about IBM, 12% called out internal technology failures, 11% made observations
                            about conference calls behaviors and norms, 4% characterized details about non-standard offices and global location of teams

"We can take what people are tweeting and filter them in ways that organizations can use to improve the way they do business… the content [of these tweets] may be useful in the acculturation process for new employee, as cues about dominant work practices are identified, and norms of conversation and insider language can be exposed to new employees during training," she said.

Thom is now working on how to intentionally start organic, authentic memes like #stuffibmerssay.


Some participants even said they were really glad to show that IBMers have a sense of humor. - Dr. Jennifer Thom

Paying attention to what employees say in social media could help businesses improve IT support, find out what initiatives are working (or not), and even provide a way for company leadership to join the conversation. Internal social networks and policies within a company can also play a role. In the instance of #stuffibmerssay, rank-and-file employees along with corporate and human resource managers internally discussed the hashtag (determining that it was well within IBM's social computing guidelines.)

While mining through the data of the conversations can help companies improve their business practices, these types of conversations have benefits for the employees engaging in them. IBMers who participated in the meme reported that it helped them feel a sense of belonging – even though participants came from a variety of job roles and lived across India, the United States, the UK, Australia and other countries.

Connecting across the workplace

Employees have moved water cooler talk online. Now, colleagues from any job role or location can share bits about daily company life, and those bits can become useful insights.

Not every office topic needs to have a trending meme on Twitter to be important. Social listening can still help human resources pin point job satisfaction issues, and even give management a way to solve problems within online conversations – multiple conference calls not withstanding.

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Meet the researchers

  • David Millen

    David Millen

    Research scientist - IBM Center for
    Social Software