The Difference of Digital: are all Conversations Equal?

Some things feel right, some feel wrong, and some are just different. That’s what’s at the heart of my thinking today.

The Difference of Digital

I remember the first time i went on camera: painfully awkward, the sound of my own voice was weird, unknown. A poor quality experience. But now? Effortless, normal, easy. What was different and unusual became commonplace, largely through the democratisation and spread of the technology. That first camera i stood in front of was a broadcast model probably costing $15,000. Today, it’s a fraction of that. The pervasive nature of technology normalises that which was once out of reach.

Many of my friends are musicians, and most regularly record their own music, often producing CDs, digital formats and even vinyl. What once was the preserve of expensive studios and record labels is now commonplace.

But here’s the thing: the technology is not the thing!

I engaged in a discussion recently around leadership in the military: is there a difference in orders when given digitally? Will we behave differently if giving orders through these channels? Will we respond differently?

If someone looks you in the eye, gives a difficult order, shakes you by the hand, puts a hand on your shoulder, wishes you luck with a tear in their eye and shows you the door, you know you may have a one way ticket. But what gives that impression? What is the root of the gravitas? And can it exist in the digital space?

And if it does exist digitally, is the conversation easier? Is a leader who commands remotely more likely to be reckless? Are they better for their dispassionate situation? Can we quantify this?

Would we lead differently in person than digitally? Will we take different risks, treat people differently?

That’s at the heart of my reflection today: what is the difference of digital?

I’m going to explore two aspects; firstly, how does the nature of the channel affect the communication and, secondly, do we behave differently in those different channels?

The Difference of Digital - Face to Face

Let’s start with the difference: the Social Age is characterised by communities, largely online and facilitated by technology. I’ve written widely about how we engage in those communities, the roles we take, the purposes that they serve and the types of social authority that we wield when we connect there. But what do we lose as we move online, what is left grounded in the physical world?

The ‘physical context‘ is about the air we breathe, the sights, temperature, smells, sounds, the weather, the building, the lack of seats and quality of coffee: it’s about shared experience and being in the same boat. It’s one of the most significant elements of communication, because if we don’t share the same reality, then we project: we assume, we make stuff up. Clearly the digital channels preserve or degrade differentially: with audio, we can just hear, but with Skype or Hangouts, we can often see. But we still lack most of the environmental context if we are not there.

Part of it can just be the sense of separation: the length of the journey is important, it’s part of the sense of place.

Being with someone in person provides multiple overlays of meaning: the tone of their voice, the stance they take, the ways they mirror our body language and tone. We communicate through many channels, not just words.

The lilting quality of our voice is not incidental to communication: it’s central, adding layers of urgency, empathy, sympathy, challenge, support, questioning and meaning.

The facets of music that we use in communication

The facets of music that we use in communication

We are also able to respond faster in person to misunderstanding (which is often perpetuated and propagated online): we can frame and re-contextualise conversations at speed, without the written record that exists online. You say something and the person you are talking to looks quizzical, you immediately respond to that. If they look agitated, leaning forward, hands on the table, you know they are itching to respond.

So there are multitudinous ways in which face to face communication in the same room differs from that which is moderated or facilitated by technology. In many ways, the technology degrades the quality of the channel, but let’s not jump to conclusions: there are benefits from going digital too.

Face to face, we are limited in the number and quality of connections we can maintain: as we go virtual, removing the constraints of geography and distance, we can maintain more, stronger, social ties. We can maintain a wider and stronger community, less constrained even by things like language.

So whilst we lose something in terms of layers of context, we may gain something in terms of diversity of opinion and reach, and the ability to maintain direct communication more of the time.

Because the way we create meaning has changed: the ways we construct our stories.

The Difference of Digital - Creating Meaning

In the old world, we packaged them up, whole, and shipped them off. Today, though, they are more responsive. Look at any News website: they don’t write and article, publish it and leave it. Maybe with one revision for the later edition. No: the news is co-created, iterated, commented on as the story unfolds and the community collaborates and contributes. The story is co-written over time, usually through technology.

So what can we say for sure: we lose something when we move to digital, but we gain something as well, which probably contributes to the evolved ways we create meaning, the ways we find our stories.

We have lost something of the shared experience, something of the colour and context, but we have gained something in terms of the agility to co-create a story over time. We are no longer tied to one story, written and shared, but rather exist in a more responsive space, where the meaning is emergent over time, in response to unfolding understanding and earned knowledge.

So, in answer to the first question, “how does the nature of the channel affect communication“, the answer is, in many ways, some good, some bad, but quantifiably different.

But what of the second question: do we behave differently as a result?

Because the communication is decontextualised, does it liberate us or separate us from obligation? You’ll have seen the words ‘trust‘ and ‘identity‘ in the previous diagram. In physical spaces, we have a fair idea of identity: at least, if we know a person, we can judge if it’s them sat in front of us. Online, we can never be sure. And trust? Trust is earned over time, but perhaps it differs when we lost the handshake and ability to look someone in the eye?

How do we behave differently?

Think about the context, the decision process and the experience of consequence.

The Difference of Digital: context, decision making and consequence

Because the context may be distant, we are less emotionally connected, we lack that richness of communication: but to counter that, we may have a broader perspective. Whilst we don’t share the everyday reality of that individual, we may have a broader view, which may also be beneficial.

The decision process may also be abstracted from reality: we are not in the same trench. But that may not be a bad thing either: we may have better reflective space and be better supported (through our community and access to resources). But the decontextualised nature may be a risk. When we don’t know, we tend to frame and project our assumption.

Consequence though is harder to judge: feedback may be less synchronous than when we are together, it may be more transactional, more quantified, less emotive, more abstract.

On the plus side, videos and audio can spread messages a long way, but it’s still one level of abstraction, lacking the immediacy of being there. It’s a balance of stretch and scale versus lived experience. Messages travel further, but may be less immediate.

I guess the main thing i take away from this is the need to be mindful of the differences, because differences there are.

The channels convey different things: some better, some worse, but definitely different, and that difference has an impact. The ways we think, make decisions and experience consequence are also different, so that must be factored in too.

Is it better?

Is it worse?

Do we know yet? These are open questions: different, certainly. Better? In some ways. Worse? In some ways.

At the very least, we must factor the difference into our thinking, our training, our learning: we cannot assume that the assumptions, skills and behaviours that let us thrive face to face will translate to those that will let us thrive in the Social Age. I tackle part of this under the Social Capital part of Social Leadership.

So we need to be mindful of the difference and actively develop our understanding and capability. Some things feel easier as we go digital, some things seem harder. But our responsibility is to learn from the experience and change as a result.

That way we can actively choose where we run each conversation, in the knowledge that our choice is by design, not accident. That we are optimising our communication and being mindful in our actions.

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About julianstodd

A learning and development professional specialising in e-learning and learning technology.
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18 Responses to The Difference of Digital: are all Conversations Equal?

  1. SaeSae says:

    You’re definitely on to something with the ideas of trust, identity, and gravitas in virtual contexts, as well as the overall idea of surfacing the differences between traditional interactions and virtual ones. There’s probably some more room to explore ideas related to human connections (e.g., does a commander “care” less about her Soldiers if she’s only met them virtually?) and consequence under co-created decisions (e.g., if a committee, particularly a human-technology hybrid committee, makes a tough decision, who feels consequences…and is that even important?), too. Lots of good questions for serious decision-making in the Social Age.

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