Thursday, October 16, 2008

Why Internet communication is better than face-to-face, in some regards anyway

I have been thinking lately of how generally I prefer to communicate with everyone online, much better than face-to-face (F2F). Here are some reasons why the Internet is better than F2F.

The main advantage of Internet communications is that spatial and temporal barriers are removed, thus opening up communication that might not otherwise be possible or feasible. This is well documented in research, and personally I have been able to e-mail or comment on friends’ blogs or personal pages whom I would not be able to meet in person, or find the time to write. The asynchronous nature of many Internet connections also opens up the possibility of communicating at a time that is convenient, opposed to the hassles of finding mutually suitable times for a face-to-face get-together. I have some friends that I have to schedule a lunch with them 2 months in advance; this restriction does not apply online.

Another benefit of Internet communication is that there are studies to show that the lack of visual cues online has been found to lessen discrimination based on race, gender, social status, and social similarity and thus improve communication or even open otherwise closed channels. Online anonymity has also been found to allow people communicate online (e.g. sufferers of certain diseases, fans of embarrassing TV shows like Xena) than they would feel comfortable doing F2F (although this has also resulted in flaming and trolling).

Another factor is that some people with social inhibition are more able to connect and communicate online. Facebook researchers found the low social cost (i.e. low risk of public rejection) of connecting online did allow users to form relationships than would otherwise remained purely casual. Personally, I know many people that feel shy in F2F situations but feel liberated online and can communicate on forums, emails, etc. more openly.

Various researchers have hypothesized that Internet-based technology allows one to maintain significantly more ties than could be achieved exclusively through offline efforts. Again, I can back this up with my personal experience of being able to keep connected and updated with lots of friends, primarily through e-mail, Facebook, Twitter, and FriendFeed than I was ever able to before.

A main reason why I love Internet communication is that even though I live in a big city, in my offline life I cannot find people who want to discuss the topics I care passionately about. Online the opposite is true; there are too many places and people online that are already talking about things I’m interested in (e.g. Twitter, blogs, forums, etc.) than I could ever possibly follow. I've read studies and know people who reported finding kindred spirits online that they could connect regularly and meaningfully with not only about the topic at hand, but also about everything in their lives from miscarriages, divorces, weddings, & births.

I also think the Internet allows us to break some societal conventions or norms. Anonymity allows people to open up online or try on new identities. But when not anonymous, we can find a space to talk about other things than just polite conversation allows, whether that is heated political debates, religion, or other topics more heated than the weather or last night's game. Societal convention also says that one should not inflict trip pix or baby photos on one's friends in real life, yet the Internet has given a place to post them & let friends view them if they want - and it turns out that lots of friends do want to see them. This aspect of the Net has made deeper and more constant connections more feasible.

Finally, a reason that I love asynchronous Internet conversation is I feel infinitely more at ease than I do during F2F conversations. Online I can take the time to think about what I am saying or control things more.

I guess the truly last thing I find about Internet communication is that one can more readily say all they want to say despite its length! Not to mention, one can say what the want to say on their blog, for example, and actually find people (hopefully at least one or two people who aren't relations) that want to listen.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Social Internetworking

How the Internet Can Help Organizations Benefit From Social Networking

When Ontario premier Dalton McGuinty followed the trend of employers banning Facebook at work and banned it for Ontario civil servants, he asserted “I just don't really see how it adds value to the work you do in the workplace” (Flavelle, 2007). This was a provocative challenge to social networking sites (SNS) to justify their usefulness within the workplace. While niche SNS such as LinkedIn, Xing, and Plaxo do cater only to professional networking, overall there has not been much research on the value SNS and related technologies offer workplaces. It is my position that rather than being only a distraction to employees, Internet-enabled social networking offers considerable value to professionals and organizations.

I will first discuss the value of social networking within organizations, particularly the importance of SNS and related online technologies to establishing and maintaining useful connections with a diverse array of individuals with whom one is distantly connected (“weak ties”) and will then analyze how SNS permits employees to find, maintain, and connect to valuable weak ties on a greater scale than was previously possible.

Value of Online Social Networking
The field of social network analysis has demonstrated the value of discovering existing network structures within organizations so as to optimize networks to improve communications, resource flow, and foster innovation (Liebowitz, 2007). With the advent of affordable SNS and related online technologies, organizations are now more readily able to utilize the power of social networks, as prior spatial, temporal, and racial or social position constraints are lessened (Wellman, 1997).

In addition, these technologies enable “connections between people where none existed, and… builds new weak tie networks” (Haythornthwaite, 2005, p. 139). Weak ties, a term coined by Granovetter to denote those with whom we are not closely tied, such as friends of friends, casual acquaintances, and former co-workers or classmates, offer advantages over strong ties in that weak ties expose one to a greater breadth and more novel experience, opinion, and thoughts (Cheney, Christensen, Zorn, & Ganesh, 2004). Research has found that when employees posed questions electronically to all staff, obtaining the correct answer was not related to contacting a greater number of people but rather contacting a greater diversity of people (Constant, Sproull & Keisler, 1996). In addition, Cross and Parker claim research shows that “more diversified networks are associated with early promotion, career mobility, and managerial effectiveness” (2004, p. 11). Thus there are numerous possible advantages to organizations actively encouraging the use of online social networking in the workplace.

Find Useful Contacts
In a large or geographically-dispersed organization, employees may not know their fellow co-workers. Even smaller companies may have departmental silos or gatekeepers preventing access to needed information or resources. The ability to seek information or collaborate with coworkers is hampered when employees are not even aware of or are unable to connect with applicable coworkers (Cross & Parker, 2004). Companies such as Accenture have built electronic systems to allow employees to find relevant expertise. Liebowitz found such expertise locators, or “online yellow pages of expertise,” enables people to connect via shared interests, find necessary resources, and get answers to questions (2007, p. 17). Design firm Organism achieved similar results by tying the company directory to its corporate wiki, in which every employee maintains their own profile page listing their skills, experience, and projects (Li & Bernoff, 2008). Organism also built its own social networking features so that employees can list their friends (in social networking parlance any added contact is deemed a “friend”) for referrals and recommendations for project assignments. Many SNS by default display one’s contacts to one’s friends (although this can usually be restricted if desired), so that organizations can achieve similar results without building their own platform.

In addition, some SNS offer automatic linking based on interests or experience; alternatively, one can search the site using company names, locations, or keywords to find applicable friends (often called first degree contacts) friends of friends (second degree contacts) and friends of friends of friends (third degree contacts). Ellison, Steinfield, and Lampe found in a study of Facebook users that the features of SNS did make it easier for people to convert a latent tie into a weak tie (2007).

Maintain Weak Ties
Although strong ties tend to be supported by offline efforts (Wellman, 1997), Internet technologies can support weak ties effectively. As strong ties by their nature need more effort to maintain, maintaining weak ties can consist simply of keeping in touch with one another and possessing updated contact information. This can be easily achieved via SNS as one can quickly and easily add contacts (some with or without confirmation) and then receive access to their profiles and ongoing updates. Ellison et al. found that these SNS features and the low social cost of connecting online did allow users to “crystallize relationships that might otherwise remain ephemeral” (2007, p. 1143).

In addition to enabling people to easily make a record and keep track of a large number of contacts, Ellison et al. also found that socially-inhibited people were more able to network online as it “lower[s] the barriers to participation so that students who might otherwise shy away from initiating communication with or responding to others are encouraged to do” (2007, p. 1162). Offline one is limited by time and spatial barriers such that maintaining many ties is problematic and thus one will loose contact with some weak ties. Various researchers have hypothesized that Internet-based technology allows one to maintain significantly more ties than could be achieved exclusively through offline efforts (Donath & Boyd, 2004; Ellison et al., 2007).

Connecting and Sharing Information Online
While finding and maintaining weak ties is important, when the need arises to call upon the assistance of a weak tie, how can one be assured that the person will respond? Interestingly, one factor that limits sharing of information is greatly lessened online, as for those who have not previously meet in real life, the lack of visual cues online has been found to lessen discrimination based on race, gender, social status, and social similarity (Constant et al., 1996; Sproull, Conley, & Moon, 2005; Wellman, 1997). This has been found to be a liberating experience for some who are now able to connect at a different level than they were previously able to offline.

Researchers have found that “an electronic tie combined with an organizational tie is sufficient to allow the flow of information between people who may never have met face-to-face” (Garton, Haythornthwaite, & Wellman, 1997, Ties, ¶3). Online prosocial behaviour has been observed in various studies (Constant et al., 1996, and Sproull et al., 2005) in which people were found to offer aid to help achieve organizational goals, for altruistic reasons, as well as for self-esteem and recognition. Such was the case for Best Buy when they implemented open-source software to connect all employees. In fact, for Best Buy only achieving a small portion, ten percent, of employees using the software proved to be sufficient to enable employees to help each other (Li & Bernoff, 2008).

For targeted information requests, particularly to high level executives or difficult-to-reach people, more aid may be needed. This is where referrals and recommendations offered by some SNS provide a means for one to know that the information request comes from “someone [who] is connected to people one already knows and trusts [as this] is one of the most basic ways of establishing trust with a new relationship” (Donath & Boyd, 2004, p.72). LinkedIn is an exemplar in this regard as not only does it enable contacts to write online testimonials about ties, but they also facilitate brokered second degree and third degree contact introductions. Online social networking has been shown to offer effective communication whether a request comes directly from a weak tie, indirectly from a second or third degree contact, or from a stranger.

While online social networks do offer organizations the potential for employees to be better able to find, maintain, connect, and share information with valuable contacts, there are some important caveats. In both the Best Buy and Organism cases, their success was related to having an easy to use interface and achieving a critical mass of users (Li & Bernoff, 2008).

Another caveat is that with some SNS, such as Facebook, their original focus was on personal social networking. With the increasing adoption of Facebook in workplaces, it has introduced new challenges, such as one’s boss and workplace colleagues receiving access to previously off-limits, and possibly inappropriate, personal details and photographs (Dunfield, 2008). One possible solution, other than opting for more professional-oriented SNS like LinkedIn, would be to segments one’s SNS into groups and restrict various types of information based on these groups, as Facebook allows.

A further consideration for organizations is whether to make their online service public, to be better able to tap into important external contacts, such as possible suppliers or partners, or keep it private, so as to prevent employees being poached by recruiters. Finally, the crucial factor determining the success of online social networking in workplaces as found by researchers (Haythornthwaite, 2005; Constant et al., 1996; Li & Bernoff, 2008) is in creating the organizational culture that will support and foster participation.

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Cross, R. L., & Parker, A. (2004). Hidden power of social networks: Understanding how work really gets done in organizations. Boston, MA.: Harvard Business School Press.
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Dunfield, A. (2008, July 9). Buddying up to the boss on Facebook [Electronic version]. Globe and Mail. Retrieved September 06, 2008, from
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Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Using the Internet for Change

I am currently taking a course on Communicating for Social Change. The prof asked why we were interested in the class and my reply is below. I'm specifically interested in the various facets that the Internet has played in social and political change and am excited to learn more about it.

1) My master's thesis is on why Canadian websites are not more accessible for the visually impaired. The code to make website more accessible has been available since 1999, yet many sites aren't accessible. In my experience with Canada's web professionals, many are not aware of this issue, don't prioritize it, or do not know what specifically to do. So I hope to learn more about the barriers affecting this issue and begin me thinking of means to remedy it.

2) There are a lot of social and political issues involving the Internet that I am passionate about (e.g. net neutrality, privacy, improving democracy through the Internet, citizen journalism), so I'm interested in learning how to make these issues resonate with Canadians. I'll be travelling to India this December to attend a conference on Internet governance. The main topic is how to make the Internet available to people who otherwise have not had access (e.g. the poor, illiterate, disabled, etc.). Part of my duties during and following the conference will be to
communicate, via blogs and face-to-face meetings, these issues, so I'd appreciate any tips on how to do this more effectively.

3) As one who studies the Internet and wishes to advise on it, I'd like to understand how people use Internet media & technologies to bring about social & political change. An example is how people have used social networking sites, blogs, text messaging, etc. to quickly organize support for certain causes and mobilize action.