Is online community engagement real and valuable?

I am sometimes confronted by a prejudice in my travels; that relationships developed through online community engagement are less real than those created via face-to-face engagement processes. Like most prejudices I believe it is based on fear and misunderstanding.

Earlier this week I was lucky enough to be asked to chair a mini-conference in Sydney about Interactive Community Engagement for the Public Sector. While there were many interesting and engaging presentations, one particularly stood out for me because of the challenge it presented to online engagement methodology.

Professor Jude Butcher and Associate Professor Michael Griffith from the Australian Catholic University (ACU) talked about the Clemente Australia program which is described on the ACUs Institute for the Advancement of Community Engagement (IACE) website as “a transformative 21st century education program, which aims to break the cycle of poverty, inequity and social injustice for disadvantaged and marginalised people in Australia”.

Without wishing to oversimplify the program, it basically involved giving people who would otherwise have little opportunity to attend a University the opportunity to study literature – specifically poetry – at University level. The students often have highly complex psychological needs and personal histories including drug and alcohol dependency.

To say that the results were stunning is a profound understatement. The quality of the poetry produced by the students silenced the mini-conference audience and left me at least with mixed emotions about my good fortune on the one hand and relative lack of emotional depth and writing ability on the other.

The novel aspect of the program from a web 2.0 perspective is the use of blogging technology as a learning resource. The students are asked to blog their poems so that they can be shared with their classmates. Classmates then provide feedback by commenting directly onto the blog.

My question to the speakers was “given the participants relative fragility, how do you manage the commenting process so that students don’t receive destructive feedback that might be detrimental to their mental health?” The response and subsequent discussion focussed on the need, in this instance for the students to get to know each other in a face-to-face environment to build mutual respect and to ensure that the context in which the poetry is put to the rest of the class is one of mutual support.

There was a very clear pre-supposition that the initial face-to-face engagement was critical to the success of the program. While I agree strongly with the need to build trust and respect between participants as the foundation for the program’s success, I’m not so sure that this needs to happen face-to-face. It feels to me like the kind of pre-supposition that a digital-native (i.e. Gen Y) would not necessarily make.

This troubles me.

The difficulty I have with the proposition is that it places (potentially) arbitrary boundaries around the scope of online methodologies for engagement around more contentious, fractious and emotionally complex issues that require ongoing participant dialogue rather than one-off comments. It also severely limits the scope of programs (like Clemente) to working in very localised contexts when they have the potential to roll out as national or even international programs.

At its root, I believe that the presupposition assumes that online relationships are not real. This is a common perceptual barrier that we confront everyday with our work. It is born out of a fundamental misunderstanding of the psychology of trust and the reality of the way the world and our relationships have changed over the past 10-15 years with the uptake of the internet. As I said, I believe that it is a view more strongly held by digital migrants (over 40s) than digital natives.

The most troubling aspect for me of the persistence of this myth is that it restricts the opportunities provided by the internet to support a wide range of social programs and policy development that are otherwise logistically impossible.

I want to put on record right here right now that relationships that are initiated and facilitated online can be just as “real” as face-to-face relationships.

I can hear the thunderous call right now… “Where’s your evidence?”

Fair question, but where to begin?

Without wanting to spend the next three years researching the topic, I started by thinking about social trends that are happening around us. What could be more “real” than love!

One of the most profound social changes I have noticed over the past ten years has been the acceptability that online dating has gradually gained. Where once it was a source of embarrassment, today something like one in six marriages are the result of online dating sites!

Doug Brockwell, blogging on the Yahoo Lifestyle blog about what percentage of people meet their spouse online, quotes the results of an industry survey:

The survey found that after questioning 7,000 marriages, 38% of couples met through family and friends, 27% met through school, while 17% met online. And though marriages stemming from online meetings are still in third place, it’s important to keep in mind that the figure has risen from a base of 0% over the past 15 years. That’s a rather meteoric rise that has cut in to the “marriage market share” of other categories significantly.

The great social experiment of online dating has clearly demonstrated that people are more than capable of making deep psychological connections via the internet. If you don’t believe me, ask yourself if it would make any difference to you if you partner were to have an affair online or off-line? If you answered no, then you are not alone.  Offline or online, love clearly hurts!  We might kid ourselves that online relationships are not as real as off-line relationships, but when confronted with the brutal reality that one’s partner has developed a psychological connection and emotional attachment those prejudices are quickly challenged.

For anyone left doubting the “realness” of online relationships check out this story by Rose Vines writing on the Geek Girls blog back in 1997 about her feelings when an online friend died. The story leads with “One of my closest friends died not long ago.”

[O]nline relationships offer all of us something special.

Think about it: what distinguishes online relationships from offline? They’re free from the limits of geography; they have an element of anonymity; and they usually come minus a whole raft of assumptions, prejudices and preconceptions we bring to our offline relationships.

For instance, it’s not uncommon to have no knowledge of the gender, age, skin colour, weight, physical attractiveness – whatever that is! – or physical disabilities of the person you meet online. Frequently, by the time you do get to discover all these things, you know the person so well that these details gain the insignificance they so richly deserve. What a liberation!

The perception that a relationship that is developed online is somehow less than a relationship developed off-line is not restricted to the community engagement sector. There has been an ongoing debate in the psychology and psychotherapy sector about exactly this subject for some time. You could say that they are way ahead of us on this subject. There are entire blogs about online therapy and online counselling is a well established practice.

DeeAnna Nagel, posed a question the question are relationships online as valid as face-to-face relationships? on the Online Psychotherapy blog. The overwhelming feeling from forum participants, all trained counselors, was that online relationships are just as real as offline relationships.

Among the many insightful comments was UK based counsellor Helen Glatt’s:

It’s clearly a highly charged subject, this online relationship lark but it really isn’t new, it’s just the technology that is and it’s that, I believe, that is creating the resistance. People have always had a need to write to someone in private. People have ‘penpals’ or ‘lockable’ diaries as kids, for example and I would imagine prayer is another version. Writing in a trusted book or to a friend you’ll never meet and now to an online counsellor in a password and encrypted format, all provide an opportunity to have something of one’s very own. The client/counsellor is surely a relationship at its most perfect – each person trying their best to have no agenda other than to achieve an honest and trustworthy connection. To have this very personal and safe outlet is therapeutic, of course, whichever format it takes. I imagine the internet is treated with suspicion because it’s a machine, so the assumption is that nothing ‘real’ can happen ‘inside’ it. How can this attitude be changed? and how long will it take?

Another contributor, Helen Thomas summed things up nicely…

The question about how ‘real’ online relationships are depends on what criteria people use to define ‘real’. It would appear that many people consider physical proximity to be an essential factor of a ‘real’ relationship without giving any consideration to the purpose of the relationship. A counselling or psychotherapy relationship is formed for the purpose of bringing about psychological change, growth or repair and the first essential factor for that purpose is psychological connection, not physical proximity.

I would argue that the purpose of community engagement in a public policy setting – whether by government or a private sector proponent – is very often very similar to Helen’s thoughts on the rationale… “psychological change, growth or repair”.

It would seem to me; therefore, that online community engagement is being held back not by the technology but substantially by our prejudices. With experience our skills and methodological options and minds will open up a world of new opportunities.

NOTE: For anyone particularly interested in the psychology of text based relationships it is worth having a look at this webpage listing hypotheses of online text relationships by John Suler author of The Psychology of Cyberspace.

Photo credit: Raymond Salvatore Harmon

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