John Suler's The Psychology of Cyberspace
This article dated Jan 00 (v1.0)


Extending a Work Group
into Cyberspace

Why Walk on the Virtual Side?
Some Practical Issues in Setting Up
Changes in Group Boundaries and Dynamics
Resistance to Being Online
Integrating Online with Offline


Why Walk on the Virtual Side?

Anyone who has participated often in a work group in business, education, or a volunteer organization has experienced the hassles of scheduling meetings, as well as the sometimes frustrating complexities in how small groups function. Extending the group into cyberspace can eliminate the discontinuity due to scheduling problems. In groups where people need to speak with each other more often or maintain contact during vacation, holiday, or summer breaks, an e-mail list can be the perfect solution. The "asynchronous" communication of e-mail allows members to participate in the ongoing virtual meeting at their own convenience and at their own pace. Some of the unique features of asynchronous, typed-text communication also may alter the interpersonal dynamics of the group, which offers the opportunity to better understand and improve how the group functions.

A group as well may use "message board" formats to meet online. Much of what I discuss in this article applies to that environment also. However, because people are more familiar with e-mail - and it's easier to set up an e-mail list than a message board - I'll focus on that style of communicating.


Some Practical Issues in Setting Up

When creating an e-mail list, obviously it's important to make sure that everyone has an e-mail account. Extending the group into cyberspace when some people don't use e-mail is a bad idea. It will encourage subgrouping, miscommunication, and perhaps conflict. Doing so may even be a symptom of preexisting conflict and an acting out of hostility against subgroups or individual scapegoats. It's equally important to assess how much people know about using e-mail in general and an e-mail list in particular. Some people may say that they use e-mail "a lot" (since it's fashionable) when in reality they may only be casual users who barely understand the basics. As a result, setting up the list may be a slow, sometimes frustrating process. On the positive side, that process can serve as an opportunity for people to familiarize themselves with e-mail lists before the actual online meeting begins.

It's a good idea to have a facilitator or "host" for the list - someone who can set up the list and has some technical understanding of how lists work, as well as some experience in the customs and social dynamics of a list. Here are some guidelines for that facilitator:

- Select list software that's easy to use: for example OneList (onelist.com) or "listserv"software that's available on many university servers.

- Expect problems in gathering and entering the members' e-mail addresses. It's very easy to make one small typing error resulting in mail that will bounce back.

- If people have more than one e-mail address, enter all of them into the list. This will maximize the possibility of mail reaching them. Some people may want to receive mail at home as well as at work. Others may not like this invasion on their personal territory. Check with people first.

- To maximize communication within the group, set the "reply" feature in the list software so that replies go to the whole list, rather than privately to the person who sent the previous message. This will build group cohesion, rather than encourage private ("backchannel") communication and subgrouping.

- Once the list is set up, send a short "Hello/Role Call" message to welcome everyone to the list. In that message, ask everyone to reply, indicating that they have received that first "hello" message. In turn, reply to their first message so they know for sure their mail is getting through (most list software distributes mail to everyone on the list, including the sender - which is another verification that one's mail is getting through). don't start any formal discussions until you verify that everyone can send and is receiving mail. You may have to prompt some people several times before they reply to the "role call." It may even be necessary to prompt some people via phone or face-to-face contact. If so, you already have advanced notification that such people may not be attending to their e-mail from the list. Not a good start for the e-mail group.

Once it is clear everyone is on board, send an introductory message containing some suggestions about how to use the list. don't assume that everyone understands the technical and social aspects of an e-mail group. Some experienced onliners may see the suggestions as old hat, but it's a good idea to make sure everyone is starting on the same page. That introductory message might look something like this:

Hello everyone! I think we're all on board now, so welcome to the list! I'm looking forward to our discussions and hope this ongoing virtual meeting will be enjoyable and productive for all of us. Here are some suggestions that I think could make this experience run more smoothly for us: - Remember that hitting "reply" will send your message to the whole group. So avoid the embarrassing mistake of hitting "reply" on a person's e-mail to the group and thinking that your message is a private communication to that person! - Reply to people, even if it's just a simple one-liner or an "I agree." On big lists with lots of traffic, some people get annoyed by such short messages, but it's good for our purposes. When people post to a list and don't get ANY reply, they tend to be reluctant about posting again. No one likes to be ignored! - Let us know when you're going to be away from your computer. That way we will know why you seem to be "quiet." - Because there are no face-to-face cues (voice, body language), it's easy to misread the tone and therefore the meaning of someone's message. So when in doubt, ask for clarification. - Remember that people use e-mail at different paces and that servers on the internet may deliver some mail late. Expect some delays in people responding and messages that arrive out of order. If you have any questions about how this list works - or other ideas and suggestions - why don't we discuss that now on the list.
E-mail can be a fascinating, subtle tool for communicating - different, in many respects, from talking. Some even consider it an art form. It might be a good idea to recommend some reading about e-mail to the group. For example, here's an article about e-mail communication and relationships that might be useful.


Changes in Group Boundaries and Dynamics

There are many practical uses for the list. On the most basic level, it can be used for announcements, scheduling in-person meetings, and generally serve as a substitute for hardcopy memos. However, limiting the list to this function alone - a kind of "memo mentality" - falls short of utilizing its full potential. Memo mentality ignores how the list can be a group MEETING with many other possible applications. It can be used in a collaborative effort to edit, revise, and approve a document. The group can prepare for and afterwards discuss an in-person meeting. Under ideal conditions, the list can be an effective alternative for in-person meetings by encouraging open discussions of issues and decision-making. To do this efficiently, some structure will be necessary. Adapting Roberts Rules is one possibility. I' ve also proposed a fairly simple discussion/voting procedure for e-mail lists.

Extending the group into cyberspace can have a double-edged effect. On the one hand, the exchange of messages via the list may draw out or highlight the preexisting interpersonal dynamics of the group. Typed text has a way of making things stand out in bold relief, sometimes "demonstrating the obvious" in a very eye-catching, rubbing-one's-nose-in-it fashion. On the other hand, an online meeting also may alter the dynamics of the group because it entails a change in the boundaries of time, place, and communication style. For example:

Pacing: Because e-mail involves asynchronous communication, people can speak to the group whenever they want and as frequently as they want. Avid e-mail users may have more input into the discussion than casual or inexperienced users, possibly altering in a dramatic way the usual in-person pattern of participation.

Writing, not talking: Typed-text usually forces people to be more concise and to-the-point, resulting in a filtering out of extraneous conversation that typically pads a face-to-face meeting. The e-mail discussion may feel more efficient to some people, or blunt to others. Some members may be frustrated by the tedium of having to type everything they want to say, feeling a f2f dialogue is easier and more thorough. Because e-mail involves writing and not speaking, those with superior writing skills will have a communicative advantage. They may not be the same people who have the verbal advantage in an in-person meeting. Those who are ignored, interrupted, or talked-over during a f2f meeting may have a stronger voice in cyberspace. Those who dominate an in-person meeting may lose some of their influence online.

Disinhibition: People can' t see you or hear your voice in an e-mail discussion, which results in a "masking" effect and psychological disinhibition. People may be more willing to express thoughts and feelings that they otherwise would keep to themselves during an in-person meeting. As a result, new ideas may pop up. Surprising opinions are expressed. Conflicts that were previously warded off now rise to the surface. In an ideal situation, this disinhibiting effect can jostle a group into new and productive lines of discussion. In unfortunate circumstances, the uncovering of hidden problems may destabilize the group, reducing it's ability to communicate and work effectively. In-person meetings will be needed to remedy that situation.

Permanent Record: Any member easily can save all the group's message to an archive. Everything that was said online can be preserved indefinitely. This permanent record can come in handy in reviewing who said what and when, how decisions were made, and for attaining a bird' s eye view of the course of a discussion. Without visual and verbal cues, it's sometimes easy to misread the meaning or emotion within someone's message - particularly if you happen to be having a bad day. Going back to read a message at a later date can help you see it in a fresh light, with a new mental set and a bit more objectivity.


Resistance to Being Online

Because e-mail meetings are very different than being in-person, some people may show resistance to participating. That resistance may manifest itself in several ways: infrequent messages sent to the list; brief or unsubstantial discussions; frequent pleas for in-person meetings; habitual private (backchannel) e-mail or private in-person discussions (rather than bringing issues to the list); critical comments about using a list; and other assorted direct and indirect expressions of hostility. In rare circumstances some people may staunchly refuse to participate, which can create considerable uneasiness and distrust in the group. There are a variety of possible reasons for resistance. Some change easily, others don' t:

- Being unfamiliar or uncomfortable with using computers, e-mail, or e-mail lists. Some people may need time and experience to adapt; a little bit of training could be helpful. Chronic "memo mentality" may be a stubborn mental set in its own right, or a symptom of some of the other reasons for resistance listed below.

- A fear of displaying one's writing abilities. It's very helpful to establish a norm where all writing styles are accepted - including being casual and making errors in spelling and grammar. Schoolmarm standards about "correct" writing will not be productive.

- A fear of "going public." People may worry that someone might save their messages and later use them as "ammunition" against them. This anxiety may coincide with the worry that people outside the group may have access to the list or may be given e-mail by a group member. Such concerns may be a low-level symptom of preexisting distrust within the group. From the get-go, emphasizing the importance of list confidentiality can help alleviate some of these worries.

- Angry withdrawal, indifference. These barriers are most likely a symptom of preexisting interpersonal dynamics within the group. The disinhibiting effect of e-mail communication may help people discuss and resolve these issues, but don't count on it.

There's no doubt in my mind that an e-mail list can enhance a work group. The determining factor is the group's motivation to use the list effectively. Strong resistance may indicate that the group is not ready to be extended into cyberspace.


Integrating Online with Offline

Because an e-mail list is a very different style of communicating than being in-person, the two channels may become disconnected or "dissociated" from each other. What is said in one domain may not be said in the other. In particular, the disinhibiting effect of e-mail could lead people to state things that they refrain from bringing to the in-person meeting. Sometimes the list discussions may even evolve into a kind of "subconscious" voicing of issues that are actively avoided in-person. It is possible to work through these issues on the list, allowing the beneficial effects to seep into the f2f meetings without openly discussing them in those meetings. However, the best approach is to head off the dissociation before it becomes too deeply embedded. Make an attempt to discuss important issues in both domains - and, if possible, try to understand the psychological barriers that might prevent people from doing that. Understanding those barriers will lead to valuable insights into the interpersonal dynamics of the group.

Under ideal conditions, in-person and e-mail discussions will complement and enrich each other. The group will come to recognize the pros and cons of each realm. It will learn to maximize the advantages and minimize the disadvantages of each. The degree of success is the degree to which the group can effectively integrate the two. When the group moves fluidly from one realm to the other, when both realms give expression to all important group functions - brainstorming, decision-making, problem-solving, socializing, conflict resolution - then the group has fully succeeded in extending itself into cyberspace.



See also in The Psychology of Cyberspace:

E-mail Communication and Relationships
The Basic Psychological Features of Cyberspace
A Simple Decision-making Method for E-mail Groups
The Final Showdown Between In-Person and Cyberspace Relationships
How Many Mail List Subscribers Does It Take to Change a Light Bulb? (author unknown)

Hypotheses about online text relationships
Conflict in Cyberspace: How to resolve conflict online
Bringing Online and Offline Living Together: The Integration Principle


back to the Psychology of Cyberspace home page
www.rider.edu/suler/psycyber/psycyber.html