On Line ‘Conversations’: How Well Can We Make Them Work?

Can you have a conversation on line? That question has intrigued me for a while and so I was greatly stimulated by an exchange between two very thoughtful bloggers, both of whom I am learning a lot from (I recommend you read them, you won’t be sorry!).

Chris Rodgers, author of the Informal Coalitions blog (http://tinyurl.com/dd6ljz) and Adrian Segar author of the Conferences that Work blog (http://tinyurl.com/28y9wd7) discussed the argument that There’s no such thing as on-line conversation at http://tinyurl.com/cpe4asq. At the risk of falling into the old ‘on-the-one-hand…’ line which allows one to fence sit, I think I agree with both of them.

Chris’ argument that in the absence of face-to-face presence and interaction the exchange of ideas is thinner (my word) seems right. As I have pointed out in my overview presentation on group participation (http://t.co/px9SoTjWLD) the complex intertwining of minds that occurs when we are co-present produces a rich array of effects (mostly, but not all positive) that create the intensely rewarding character that conversation can give, building social identities and bonds. It is hard to see how these can be fully replicated in any virtual forum. In this sense, then, one may never have a full conversation on line until the participants are immersed in a virtual reality suit that allows them to simulate co-presence seamlessly.

At the same time, I’m with Adrian’s push to create better communication processes on line, searching for methods that might permit this. For example, his detailed discussion of using Google Hangouts on Air (http://tinyurl.com/7fdsf6a) shows a rich possibility for enhancing connection using an easily available platform to achieve something valuable.

I think that with imagination, we ought to be able to go a lot further. There are numerous useful techniques for everyday workshops that achieve the twin goals of involvement and productivity. As two examples I’ll mention WorldCafés and open space fishbowls—which I will write about more in a different post. What these share is the capacity for open and egalitarian discussions which engage everyone and produce good outcomes. Structure is provided by the method itself which ensures an excellent chance for all voices to be heard (see my earlier posts at http://tinyurl.com/cxewp7t and http://tinyurl.com/bv3dchw) and inhibits things like serial monologue and the silencing of outlier ideas.

I have yet to see—but hold out hopes for—internet platforms/apps that will simulate these methods fully. Chris’ ‘synchronous interaction’ which (say) a fishbowl draws upon can be mimicked very well in part, less well in other ways (for fishbowls see e.g. http://tinyurl.com/d98mzop). It is not hard to imagine how the ‘bowl’—5 or 6 people in animated discussion—can be relayed in real time using various protocols like Skype. But to work well, this conversation (forgive me Chris for the usage!) needs to be visible to the much larger ‘audience’ and in addition there needs to be a method that allows an automated ‘put up your hand’ queuing system for others to join into the ‘empty seat’ and become a temporary part of the bowl discussion. So far I have not found one that does this and I have also found in discussions that there is a slight reluctance to accept the idea that the queuing process could be automatic rather than ‘moderated’. While I can see how the issue of troll-in-the-bowl needs management I think we need to be more imaginative about how we allow entry and topic sharing.

Using fishbowls, etc., with co-present groups I have found that direction and control of the process is very much governed by less-is-more and I would want to see this applied as much as possible to online versions too. I’d be interested in any ideas people have…


About stephenmugford

Once a sociologist (1970-1997) then a consultant who reads a lot in psychology, cognitive science, complexity, etc and wanders along paths from one topic to another.
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2 Responses to On Line ‘Conversations’: How Well Can We Make Them Work?

  1. Charlotte says:

    Enjoy the read Stephen! Chris’ argument that in the absence of face-to-face presence and interaction the exchange of ideas is thinner (my word) seems right. ….I agree that there is a cost to non face-to-face conversations however there are also benefits. I am thinking of a discussion on a Linked in group which I engaged in during Easter. One of the dimensions which we don’t experience much in conventional conversation is plenty of time. During this blog conversation I could read someones comment and then think and clarify; in fact I could do so overnight – which resulted in a rich internal exploration of the issue. The other aspect is that it would be highly unlikely to ever have the conversation face-to-face as I never meet more than one person at a time who may have a slight interest in the topic, this way we have the people from around the world who are interested in the same topic…

  2. Thanks, Stephen, for your added commentary on this – and your kind comments about our respective blogs.

    Charlotte, I agree fully with the value of blogs and the like, and the opportunity that these provide for more in-depth reflection and comment. In my original post, I was just drawing attention to the multi-dimensional, in-the-moment nature of conversation, which is not replicable (at present at least) in on-line forums. As I suggested in my original post, on-line posts and comments provide, in effect, an invitation for people to have a ‘real-world’ conversation (with themselves and maybe others as well). This is essentially what you were doing with your “rich internal exploration of the issue”, which no doubt led to further comment.

    Cheers, Chris

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