Saturday, June 1, 2013

To Be Online or Not to Be Online

Recently I've heard about a discussion on the Tangleball mailing list about whether an entity should be having discussions online or whether they should be constrained to physical meetings. Personally I refuse to participate with this group online (thus, I've only heard of the discussion).

There's a couple of reasons for this. Tangleball is a creative space. It's a physical space for people to come together and make stuff. An online presence is great for advertising but, is it fair for people to manage it from behind their computer screens effecting the use of the space by people who are actually in the space?

Secondly, the medium is the message.

There was this old episode of "The Cosby Show" where one of his daughters comes home overseas. It turns out she's gotten married while overseas. Bill Huxtable (Does anyone know why they called it "The Cosby Show" if they were going to use "Cosby" as the character's surname?) explains to his all new son in law, "Imagine the biggest plumpest juiciest steak. With roast potatoes and onions and all smothered in a creamy mushroom sauce. Now, take that meal and present it on a rubbish bin lid".

The fact that the meal has all the right things and someone has gone through all the effort to carefully craft it is completely lost within the fact that it's been served up on a rubbish bin lid. The content is brilliant! The medium... well... even the best meal loses it's meaning if it's been served up in a terrible way (whether that's terrible customer service or the surroundings - i.e. if you see cockroaches, chances are, you're no longer thinking about he meal).

How often do you receive a txt message and just can't understand what the person's trying to say? The next time you hear your phone beep, you dread having to decipher it. The contents of the txt are less important than the fact that it's been sent via txt. The rejection factor needs to be taken into account as well.. i.e. how does the person you're trying to communicate with communicate? Personally I don't like sending lots and lots of txts. I look for natural ends (though I've got a friend who always gets upset with me because apparently I never reply to her txts - completely untrue. I don't have long conversations via txt - I will, at some point, either decide that this is a good place to stop, or, if it's going on and on, phone the person). So the medium changes how people perceive things as well as how we communicate...

So now think about email. A lot of the arguments spring up because people disagree on VERY minor points and a lot of the time, they're talking in circles around each other. Get those same people who are SHOUTING AT EACH OTHER on the Internet and chances are, they'll either find their points are actually very similar, or, that they completely disagree but the way that they act is completely different. i.e. no shouting involved.

Also take into account that sarcasm is often missed - those tools like inflection and expression are completely missed.

The problem though: if you point out that email on it's own is actually quite a bad tool for management (having a bit of a grumble in person does wonders for all parties involved) whereas, it's got uses when used with actual meetings, people can end up accusing you of censorship.

This is especially prevalent within geek communities where social norms are sometimes modeled upon online behaviour. After a couple of arguments in "meat space" which shake a community, the "meat space" meetings can take quite a... subdued form. i.e. people become afraid to speak their mind for fear that it will devolve into a shouting match.

This is where meetings fail... people don't get their point across and end up talking behind each other's backs. Meanwhile, online, the discussion devolves into shouting matches... So this is actually quite a big discussion - how do you create a productive forum for communication?

Personally, I'd go back to the people. A face to face meeting is good BUT it's a lot of work to get people saying what's on their minds (once they've become a little shy). Generally speaking, this requires a few new members who can say what people are thinking. But it comes down to leadership to me. How are meetings conducted? How are disagreements resolved? I like consistency on this front. Lockwood Smith will go down in history as being VERY even handed as the speaker of the house. I think this skill needs to be fostered and those who do it well, to chair meetings. So it shouldn't necessarily be a leader - just someone who can calm things down, invite people to talk (in a way that doesn't just put them on the spot) etc. - to chair meetings.

Online stuff can supplement meetings quite well but should NEVER replace them...


  1. Because he was already popular, getting his name out there in the title draws people in who know his name and act.

    Same with Roseanne, Fresh Prince of Bel Air, Ellen, The Drew Carrey Show, Everybody Loves Raymond, etc.

    1. The big difference is that all of those shows used their names in the show (minus Fresh Prince - that was never his name :p).

      The Cosby Show didn't have a character named "Cosby".