Research Paper: Communication in online spaces – trust and disclosure.

I asked the question “Assuming you are communicating with someone you know, are you more comfortable disclosing personal information online or in person?” This is part of a wider piece of research that i’m working on looking at how relationships are formed and maintained in social learning spaces. As organisations drive towards the adoption of increasingly wide layers of social interaction in learning, and as globalisation leads to increasingly dispersed workforces, it’s worth us taking the time to think about how these relationships are formed and what types of interactions we are most comfortable with when it comes to the virtual.

This is significant because so much of learning is based around disclosure, trust and feedback. Or perhaps i should say that it’s based on feedback that can only happen if the trust is in place to allow disclosure.

If i look at my various online personas, i can see that some of them originated in the ‘real’ world, whilst many of them have only ever been virtual. Take the Learning Forum: there are 133 people in it, but i’ve only met 51 of them in person. That’s 38%. Do i interact with that 38% differently from the other 62%? If so, how. And more importantly, why? I run whole projects remotely these days, with teams that i never meet, so do i deal with them differently from those that i run in person?

We can use social learning spaces in the virtual world for many things, but coaching and performance support are two areas of great interest. But both of these things require us to build trust and relationships. I’m interested in whether these relationships are just different, or if they are fundamentally different in some way and if we can quantify this difference?

Out of the respondents to my question, 83% said that they were more comfortable discussing personal information in person, even when they knew the person concerned. In many ways, this surprised me. We know that people are more reckless with their personal information online than in person, but maybe some of this recklessness is accidental, maybe when we actually think about it and plan it, we are more cautious? When it comes to emails and texts, people often relax the inhibitions that prevent them saying what they feel in person. Because we don’t have the immediate feedback of seeing someone’s face and hearing their tone of voice online, it’s easy to misread the signs.

It’s like when i was at a wedding last week. I was making a joke when i realised that i’d lost the audience (hardly surprising…). The person that i was speaking to was smiling with his mouth, but wrinkling his eyes. I could tell that he just didn’t get what i was on about, so i adapted and changed it. Whilst i wasn’t able to make the joke funny, i think i did at least manage to pull it back from the downright embarrassing. And that’s something that you can only really do in person. In an email, i’d have just sent it and probably never even realised that it hadn’t landed well, that he was confused, that it just wasn’t funny.

Of course, the 83% may have been a reporting error: because my method of enquiry was to ask people whether they were more comfortable, they are reporting what they think they would do. This may differ from what they actually do. We may see ourselves as people who only deal with personal disclosure in person, whilst in reality, we constantly text, provide status updates and emails to our close friends around very personal issues. Or maybe my question was wrong: after all, i only asked what you are most ‘comfortable’ with, not what you actually do.

For the wider piece of research, i need to include some independent analysis of communication to see what we can observe as opposed to what our intentions are.

So this is the first part of a wider question, exploring the nature of our relationships and how this affects our willingness to share and interact with others in social spaces. We will also need to explore how this differs in highly informal social spaces as opposed to the more formal or semi formal environments created around learning projects.

My hypothesis is that the engagement we seek in these spaces needs to be dealt with independently from the subject matter in hand. I think that we need to think about creating space for people to engage separately from the times when we actually want them to use that engagement to achieve something targeted. We need the foundations in place first.

In itself, these results are just one part of a large picture, but interesting nonetheless as they force me to challenge my assumptions (that people will be totally comfortable disclosing online) and think about the experimental methodology.

Many respondents added some context around their answers, clearly the type of information to be disclosed is significant, but also the channel, indicating that we differentiate between texts, emails, forum spaces etc. I guess much as we would between having a conversation by the printer, in the pub, at a friends house and so on.

Still, an interesting start and more work to do. It’s worth us thinking about how this informs our engagement and use of social spaces, but also being aware that this picture will change over time as adoption increases. So watch this space.

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About Julian Stodd

A learning and development professional specialising in e-learning and learning technology.
This entry was posted in Collaboration, Communication, Community, Community of Practice, Disclosure, Formal Spaces, Informal Spaces, Social Learning, Social Media, Trust and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Research Paper: Communication in online spaces – trust and disclosure.

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