Communication in the electronic age can be quite challenging. Tools like the internet have allowed us to have more communication to more people, but has this really been helpful? I enjoy blogging, email and various forums. When you are conveying flat facts and academic topics this is a wonderful medium. But we are essentially social beings - it is much harder to do community on the web simply because of the drawbacks to e-communication.
1) E-Communication lacks an emotional connection. A lot has to be said for not seeing the face of the person you are talking about. When we can't connect at a visual level we lose a whole dimension to communication. How many of us have experienced the frustration of being completely misunderstood through email. The problem is twofold. Because when we type out the message we actually express with our faces to the unresponsive computer screen. So when we are misunderstood our prejudice is that we effecively communicated. We need to see each other in real-time to capture that whole non-verbal dimension.
2) E-Communication allows for a false anonymity. Because there is a buffer between commucators it is too easy to forget that you are communicating with people. People who have the same potential for frustration, anger and poor communication that you do. Being a fan of online forums (since FidoNet actually) it is common to see misunderstandings escalate into veritable flame wars. As one who has participated in such conversations as both the voice of reason and the unreasonable voice, I know how easy it is to feel like you are fighting a machine or worse being treated like you are a machine.
3) E-Communication is too easy. This is both boon and bane. The fact that I can email my friends and organize a get together is incredibly easy and convenient. That I can post discourses like this on my blog and engage with a community interested in exploring the same thoughts, is incredible. But how much does e-communication erode our social skills? I've been trying to find ways to build real community on the Internet, and the more I try the more I realize the incredible challenge that this is.
Where I find this issue of ease most stark is in my role playing communities. I play pencil and paper role playing games with a couple groups of friends. When new folks come in there is a awkward, but necessary, integration period. The group gets to know each other. But our common bond of the game makes us want to do this. These groups work best with smaller numbers (8 or less in my experience is best) and so you can develop some really amazing community that way. In the latest group I've joined I feel, finally, like I'm through that initial awkward stage and that I'm starting to get to know these guys a bit. We are starting to have some more meaningful dialogue as well as a heck of a lot of fun trapsing around a dungeon chasing dragons. But it takes work. It takes some effort to open up and join in to what the community is doing together (which is telling a story in which we are the main characters). In the online versions it is too easy to connect to a multitude of folks and think that you have community, but when it comes down to it these are just other players who don't want to do the work that real community takes. It is an illusion of community. In my established gaming group most of the guys who've been gaming with us for a year or more have become better and better friends. In fact in some cases our families have connected significantly. It extends well beyond the game.
It is too easy to abandon the so-called friends we make online when it involves breaking out of the virtual realm. We can make new 'friends' online. But in person-to-person community it is hard to ignore the request for help (often unspoken). (I should note that the same phenomenon occurs in large impersonal groups, but that is another post).
My main concern is that we are becoming so used to e-communication that we are learning to accept these limitations as the status quo. When we do this we impoverish communication as a whole. I am not advocating abandonment of technology, but rather recognition of these limitations. Recognition will achieve two goals, first it will help us treasure what we have in person-to-person communication and second it will spur on the search for innovative ways to overcome these limitations and improve the advance in communication (audience and ease) that technology has given us.
* Note: Scott Smith is the person who I first remember talking through these ideas, I owe a debt to him for the thinking in this post. Thanks Scott (NeoInsight).