Online communication is not without shortcomings though many of those are perceived, rather than real. In this post, we outline eight disadvantages of online communication – some real, some perceived – specifically in the context of citizen engagement. Importantly, however, we outline strategies to overcome any shortcomings.
#1. Text-based online discussion necessarily excludes some people (like all methods)
Online forums predominantly rely on inputting text which can be challenging for those who can’t write, can’t spell, don’t like to write, have poor keyboard skills, have no access to a keyboard, live with a disability that prevents them from reading text and using a keyboard…
With the advance of broadband connectivity as well as voice and video conference technology, this will gradually become less of an issue to some extent.
This disadvantage is associated with an all text-based consultation processes, 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.
#2. The lack of physical cues in online forums may lead to miscommunication
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 a 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 leave 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 asynchronous nature of online forums provides 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 conversational 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.
#3. Busy online discussion forums may cause 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 a 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. In fact, we often see threads with 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”.
#4. Participants may accidentally go off-topic within a particular discussion thread
The logical sequence of discussion is often broken by users not sticking to the topic.
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.
#5. The time lag between commenting and receiving a response can seem an eternity
Even if you login 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.
This line of though is unconvincing. A combination of good forum design, notification systems and personal diligence overcomes 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.
#6. Online forums may feel inefficient for an individual
It takes longer than verbal conversation and so it’s hard to reply to all the points in a message, easily leaving questions unanswered.
We don’t see any evidence of this. In fact, we 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.
#7. Online forums can feel isolated and isolating for people who like to learn in groups
Some people prefer to absorb information on their own and don’t participate in the discussions.
The ability to sit back and digest a comment or question and respond in one’s 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.
#8. Online forums can feel directionless for people used to being spoon-fed
Participants used to having a teacher or instructor telling them what to do can find an online forum to be a leaderless environment, and that’s where tutors come in.
This is an interesting point and one where online citizen 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.