In the last week, I've heard several comments about how online communication isn't real communication. The assumption underpinning these comments is that to really communicate you have to have a face-to-face conversation. Anything else just isn't real. In a room of 50 people last week, the question was posed: who in the room uses Twitter? I put up my hand (I had been tweeting all morning), but no one else did. This was a room of cross-generational people, not just baby boomers like me. I was a bit stunned - surely not? One of the presenters said he just didn't get it. I got home that night to discover my tweets about future trends had been retweeted, and five new people were following me by the end of the day. Now, this probably doesn't conform to our understanding of traditional communication, but on that day my global network expanded just a little, and my voice in the global conversation about futures work is now being heard by a few more people. I have met some of my fellow tweeters but not others, and if we do meet, we already have a relationship that can inform our communication. But, we don't need to meet in person to communicate effectively, share knowledge and learn from each other.
I remember my year as an online student doing the first year of the Masters of Strategic Foresight at Swinburne University. Not knowing what to expect at the beginning of the year but open to the process, I got to the end of the year realising that I had just had one of the most intense formal learning experiences of my life. I didn't meet any of my classmates until the end of the year when we joined the classroom group for presentations, but I felt strong connections with the group which built very quickly, and some of the conversations we had online were of an amazingly high quality intellectually. Of course, the key to this success was Jenny Gidley, who facilitated the whole year and made sure we did connect, contribute and communicate in authentic and meaningful ways.
My sister posted a comment on Facebook last week about something that had happened and I replied to her (privately) on Facebook - what's up? I could have rung her (we live two states apart), but we both postat verystrange times of the night. We then had an online conversation that was just as real as if we had talked on the phone. I don't spend much time on Facebook, but it does help me find out what my friends and business colleagues are up to, and how I might be able to intersect with them in some way. My daughter's best friend once broke up the friendship with her online, and the pain she felt was just as real as if it had been done in person. In some ways, it was probably better it was not done in person. Life happens online too.
Online communication in its rawest form, like answering questions like 'what are you doing?" or 'what's on your mind?" probably is of interest only to people who are in your immediate circle of friends and family. Some say online communication methods allow people to retreat from the real world - but having we been doing that in various ways forever? Some say online communication means young people don't develop social skills, but my perception of that is that, like all generations, we need to learn how to interact with society at large, and we do that when we interact with it. Online communication has its etiquette too, and if you breach that etiquette, you will know about it - directly and quickly.
For me though, online communication is very real, a very meaningful way to communicate with other people across the globe, and a way for me to stay in touch with them, and find out new things every day. The way we live and communicate is changing, and we shouldn't dismiss one form of communication because it doesn't fit with our current understandings of what is effective and what isn't. We have just added to our existing hybrid communication methods - mail, email, phone, skype, online, face-to-face, written, spoken - all valid methods, all serving a communication purpose.
Our current understandings about the effectiveness of online communication may not be relevant or useful into the future. We need to challenge and test the assumptions underpinning those understandings by immersing ourselves in the alternative forms of communication to experience it and what it means and how, and in what ways, it can be used to improve how we connect with each other now. I think the next time that someone tells me that communicating online isn't real communication, I'll check to see if they know what they are talking about by asking whether they tweet or not!