Word + LinkedIn? Sounds Great!

Randall Stross is not looking forward to the blessed union of LinkedIn and Microsoft Office. In particular, he’s not happy with what he saw in a presentation explaining how the merger will benefit all of mankind:

I’m not a Microsoft shareholder myself, but I am one of the 1.2 billion users of Microsoft Office, and I was baffled to see my workhorse word-processing software show up in the rationale for this deal. Mr. Nadella supplied one explanatory clue in an email that he sent to Microsoft employees. “This combination will make it possible for new experiences,” he wrote, such as “Office suggesting an expert to connect with via LinkedIn to help with a task you’re trying to complete.”

….My version of Word, a relatively recent one, is not that different from the original, born in software’s Pleistocene epoch. It isn’t networked to my friends, family and professional contacts, and that’s the point. Writing on Word may be the only time I spend on my computer in which I can keep the endless distractions in the networked world out of sight….Matthew G. Kirschenbaum, an associate professor of English at the University of Maryland and author of “Track Changes: A Literary History of Word Processing,” said the move reflected a failure to understand what writers need. “Most of the most innovative writing tools now on the market position themselves precisely as distraction-free platforms,” he said.

Elon Musk once called Stross a “huge douchebag…and an idiot,” which makes me like him already. But he’s way off base here. Let’s dispense with the obvious first: If this feature ever shows up in Microsoft Word, you’ll be able to turn it off. It will take ten seconds. Not every new feature is the next Clippy, for chrissake.

I could just stop there, but what’s the fun in that? Here’s the bigger problem: Stross is a historian. Kirschenbaum is an English professor. They are the kind of people who think of writing as a profound, solitary activity. They lose themselves in their writing. They want to be left alone. They want to concentrate on the blank screen.

In other words, they represent about 1 percent of real-world writers. Kirschenbaum is right that there are lots of “innovative” writing tools these days that compete with each other to be the most distraction free. You can read about them here. Or if, like me, you think this is one of the most idiotic hipsterish trends to hit computers in a long time, you can read about it here. Either way, their market share is as minimal as their interfaces. Most people aren’t such delicate flowers that a small array of icons and menus destroys their ability to pound out a few paragraphs.

More to the point, Stross needs to acknowledge that Word is designed for ordinary business folks who write data sheets, emails, memos, and other ephemera. They don’t care too much about distraction-free writing because the whole concept is a joke: the average workplace is full of distractions all the time, from every possible direction. What’s more, your average office drone writes about stuff related to their business and their industry. Getting hints about who might help with an estimate for the size of the left-handed screwdriver market probably sounds pretty handy.

If integration with LinkedIn ever makes it to Microsoft Word, I myself will turn it off faster than you can say “WTF is this?” And then I’ll get back to work, none the worse for wear. Millions of others, perhaps, will try it out and find it useful. Who knows? Away from the ivory tower, it might turn out to be a handy thing.