There are a number of clear advantages and disadvantages of online communication that need to be considered when you are planning a digital civic engagement strategy.
Way back in November 2008 I posted a list of advantages and disadvantages of online communication drawn from Wikiversity.
At the time I posted the lists with very little comment. It has since proven to be one of the most consistently popular posts on our blog, so I thought it was about time for a revisit and rethink. I am posting the same two lists but with my thoughts, based on 18 months of learning, about the veracity of each advantage and disadvantage as they apply to the world on online community engagement.
Advantages of online communication
Disadvantages of online communication
|Flexibility: accessible 24×7, any place as long as you have an internet connection. We have seen this advantage come through clearly in the user patterns of each of our consultation sites. Some 70% if visitors to our sites do so during their working day with peaks around morning and afternoon tea. It is quite clear that the majority of users take full advantage of the convenience of the opportunity to get involved in the discussions while they are at work rather than in their own time.||Text-based: Predominantly relies on inputting text which can be challenging for those who don’t like to write or have poor keyboard skills, but with the advance of broadband connectivity and voice and video conference technology – this will be less of an issue.This disadvantage is associated with all text based consultation process, particularly the traditional statutory “submission” processes. We noticed that many people choose to “vote” to agree or disagree with other people’s comments rather than leaving their own; this may be a reflection of a lack of confidence in their own language and keyboard skills. We have also noticed that while the majority of the comments demonstrate a relatively high degree of language skills, this is by no means always the case. We have seen comments written in an abbreviated SMS style; comments written in broken English; and comments written using phonetic spelling. All of which indicate that online systems do not necessarily have to present a barrier to entry for people with poorer language skills.|
|Levelling: reserved people who usually don’t speak up can say as much as they like while “loud” people are just another voice and can’t interrupt. We have seen this phenomenon play out repeatedly on many of our client sites. The main “levelling” benefit for me is the “democratization” of the thoughts, ideas, suggestions, value statements etc that occurs through anonymity. In theory, all views should be seen as equal, with their merit tested against the logic of the argument. However, as we know, in reality, all animals are equal; except pigs, which are more equal. The power attached to position can often overwhelm the logic of an argument. Divorcing the comment from the commentator removes this power. The interpretation becomes all about the “text” and the merits of the line of argument, rather than about the personalities involved.||No physical cues: without facial expressions and gestures or the ability to retract immediately there’s a big risk of misunderstanding. This can be a problem. There is not much room for wit and whimsy, humour and satire in the forum environment. Irony is lost on very large proportion of our global population at the best of times (witness Alanis Morisette). Of course people with different senses of humour have been misunderstanding each other forever. The use of “smileys” is not a particularly satisfying solution. The best solution to this limitation is to park irony at the door when you enter a forum. When the visitors are not familiar with each other and have different views about a subject, they are better used as spaces for more serious discussion and dialogue.On the other hand, the a-synchronous nature of online forums does provide participants the opportunity to be very careful in their phrasing to reduce this problem as far as reasonably possible. Synchronous tools, like chat, present more difficulties because of the temptation to fire off the first thought that comes to mind.Also, the vast majority of comments we see are factual or statements of a position rather than “interlocutionary” in nature. They are made to the client, rather than to fellow participants of the forum. In this regard, issues to do with sensitivity to misunderstandings are much less fraught.|
|Documented: unlike verbal conversation, online discussion is lasting and can be revisited.The a-synchronous nature of the forums means that days or even weeks may go by between comments within a particular discussion thread. This does nothing to lessen the value of the individual contributions, whereas a verbal conversation inevitably moves on and it can be difficult to take the conversation back to an earlier point; particularly for a less forceful participant.Using forums as a conversation documentation tool is one of the key benefits our clients gain from online engagement processes. That the comments are captured verbatim and can be downloaded, stored and made readily available to the public or for analysis purposes presents enormous analytical, administrative and cost savings.||Information overload: a large volume of messages can be overwhelming and hard to follow, even stress-inducing.This is difficult to argue with given the inexact nature of “large volume”. We have had consultations with up to 2500 comments. Is that a large volume? Not if you were running a national consultation on health reform in the US. But for a local issue about the location of railway line, it was HUGE. We’ve seen individual discussion threads get to 4-600 comments. Is this overwhelming? We haven’t seen any evidence that it puts anyone of joining the discussion. If fact we often see the threads that have the most comments attracting a disproportionate volume of new traffic, indicating that like a busy restaurant, people are attracted to the action, rather than put off by the “busyness”.|
|Encourages reflection: participants don’t have to contribute until they’ve thought about the issue and feel ready.My sense is that this is one of the key benefits from a methodological viewpoint of using online engagement systems. Overwhelmingly, the comments that we see are of a very high standard in terms of the value of the qualitative data. They are what I would have described as “rich” data in my University days.||Threads: logical sequence of discussion is often broken by users not sticking to the topic (thread)This problem only occurs in non-threaded forums, and it is precisely why we prefer to use threaded discussion forums. We also built in the “show replies/hide replies” buttons to allow readers to collapse the secondary comments at their volition when the conversation is not relevant or interesting.|
|Relevance: provides a place for real life examples and experience to be exchanged.This is another phenomenon that I have noted and found quite moving at times. The anonymity of the forum space clearly sets people free when talking about deeply personal issues. One of our first forums was about the experiences of new mothers in the Australian health system. The stories that emerged were detailed, compelling, emotionally rich and very real.||Time lag: even if you log on daily, 24 hours can seem like a long time if you’re waiting for a reply; and then the discussion could have moved on and left you behind.I’m not convinced about this line of thought at all. A combination of good forum design, notification systems and personal diligence overcome any difficulties arising from the delay in either receiving or posting a response. A threaded discussion forum overcomes the problem of the “conversation moving on” by allowing the individual to jump into the forum wherever and whenever they want to. Notification systems using RSS and direct email provide ample opportunity for the individual to return to the conversation space at their volition.|
|Choice: a quick question or comment, or a long reflective account are equally possible.I love this about forums. One of the contemporary obsessions (in my view) by community engagement practitioners is often the perceived need to involve participants in deep, rich and therefore time consuming conversation about issues. This presents an enormous barrier to entry for the vast majority of the population. The bulk of our users leave one, two or three comments. A smaller group might leave ten or fifteen comments, and a very small group leave indeed leave over 50 comments. Many of the comments are very short, partly by necessity if they are responding to other forum members and partly by choice if the author feels that they can say all they have to say in just a few words.||Inefficient: it takes longer than verbal conversation and so it’s hard to reply to all the points in a message, easily leaving questions unanswered.I don’t see any evidence of this. In fact, I would argue that written responses very often provide a much better opportunity to properly construct a much more detailed and expansive response than verbal conversation. The time constraints of a verbal conversation very often place necessary constraints around the depth and breadth of responses.|
|Community: over time can develop into a supportive, stimulating community which participants come to regard as the high point of their course.We have seen this happen in only a few instances where an issue has been “hot” enough in a community to drive repeat visitation to the forum by a number of participants. It is not unusual to see one or two participants heavily involved in a forum, it is much less common to see ten or twenty participants repeatedly returning to dialogue and debate the topic. On one occasion when the community were aware that the forum was closing on a certain date, we saw a number of comments from members thanking each other for the opportunity to converse and the quality of the contributions.||Isolation: some learners prefer to learn on their own and don’t participate in the discussions.The ability to sit back and digest a comment or question and respond in ones own time is one of the great benefits of online forums compared to face-to-face learning environments. Participants who might ordinarily feel embarrassed, nervous or overwhelmed by their interlocutors are freed by the protectiveness of the combination of “comfort” factors – anonymity, timelessness, their own space etc.|
|Limitless: you can never predict where the discussion will go; the unexpected often results in increased incidental learning.This is the case for online community engagement as much as for online classroom learning. We have seen organisations surprised repeatedly by the issues that their community is actually concerned about rather than the issues they believed their community should or would be concerned about. It is not uncommon for policy officers beavering away in their cubicles at work to come to believe that their personally passion (obsession) is, or should be, everyone else’s. Needless to say, this is rarely the case, and online engagement can be a good reality check.||Directionless: participants used to having a teacher or instructor telling them what to do can find it a leaderless environment and that’s where tutors come in.This is an interesting point and one where I believe online community engagement has a lot of learning to do. I have written before about what I called the various “governance” arrangements for an organisation to interact with their forum communities. It is still very rare, so rare in fact that we have seen it only once, for an organisation to commit the resources to facilitating the conversation within the forum space. The facilitator would review all of the comments once a day (separately from our moderation, which is hourly). He would then either answer questions or ask follow up questions to try to draw the participants into a deeper discussion. Others have developed more sophistication around the online facilitation process, but sector has a lot to learn from educationalists.|
Photo Credit: Bad or Good by Mario Mancuso