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July 20, 2007



Scott, I think you are absolutely correct in your assessment of face-to-face meetings. Too few people focus on the human aspect of interaction.

I believe however, that the complexities of online meetings are far greater than you state, for the very reason you state – human nature. The fear of looking a fool is, in my view, more daunting sitting face-to-face with ones peers than it is on the net. Most of the people on this blog have no idea who I am. That gives me freedom to say almost anything. It gives me freedom to succumb to baser instincts as well. It is much easier to throw out a snide remark or to insult someone anonymously then it is to do so face-to-face. A good deal of communication is in the intonation and in movements of the body. As you say, trust is essential in achieving results in a group. Trust cannot be built with mere words.

Also I think there is an inherent assumption that both you and Jane make, that being; the world at large is like America. I think it important to remember that the world is not a unitary culture, there are in fact contextual and cultural complexities that make online meetings extraordinarily difficult. Scott, as your last few blog entries demonstrate, the world grows smaller with each passing year. Increasingly, groups are made up of people from different cultures, speaking different languages. Ironically, the net does allow us to include groups from around the world in a global discussion. However, the web also allows for an exponential increase in misunderstandings as well. Scott, you just returned from Japan. I think you would find that many of the librarians you met in Japan would be shocked by some of the strong language sometimes found on this very blog. The problem with the net isn’t technical. The problem with the net is that human conventions have not yet caught up with the technology. As Mark says, “play nice, no hitting” Don’t you find it shocking that the President of the MLA would feel it necessary to say such a thing on his blog? But it is indeed necessary; isn’t it?

I have been observing an anthropological experiment conducted by Berkshire Publishing. They have set up a blog called “Love US Hate US.” Berkshire had intended it to be a place where people from across the globe could express what they liked and disliked about the American experiment. I’ve watched this site for well over a year. It indeed has been fascinating. In the end, it has turned into a shouting match between Europeans and Americans over the virtues and vices of each others culture. It is at once fascinating and dismaying to watch. It is not a dialogue at all. It is in essence a virtual reality street brawl. I think therein lies the paradox, people are not cowed by the very public nature of the net, on the contrary the anonymity of the net emboldens people to indulge their baser instincts.

In your last sentence you state, “Establishing an online culture that demonstrably lives by that (play nice no hitting) is essential.” Truer words were never written my friend, and in fact, for all the marvels of the technology and all the possibilities it offers – it is the hardest part of all.

T Scott

The anonymity that many people prize about the internet does, it seems to me, often encourage peoples' worst impulses. When people aren't accountable for what they say, too often they seem to feel free to say anything. The "virtual reality street brawl" that you describe is a pretty common feature of internet discourse. And, as you point out, the opportunities for misunderstanding across cultures are great. (There were numerous elements in my presentation where I used different examples in Japan than I would have in the states -- and I no doubt still said some things that came across poorly).

I guess the bottom line for me is that few of the things that frustrate people about f2f meetings are going to be resolved simply by moving them online. There are certainly cases where online interaction may turn out to be more appropriate and effective -- but thinking one's way through all of those human factors and accounting for them will be just as essential as when we're all sitting in the same room.

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