How to bite your elbow, or, reducing online distance

As an undergraduate, I had a terrific time swimming way over my head in a course on modern sociological thought.  Among other things, we read Talcott Parsons, which is like getting mugged by a noun gang.  I thought I understood what he meant by specific relationships versus diffuse ones, so when Dr. Bauder asked for an example of the latter, I said, “Student and teacher.”  (I mean, it should be a free exchange, right?)

Her reply: “Okay.  What are you doing Saturday night?”

Einstein was right.  Everything is relative.

Being specific takes more work

To make the point clear: in a specific relationship, it’s the roles that are specific, and you more or less have to justify including things that don’t fit those roles.  You might shoot the breeze with the grocery store cashier about the weather, or the freshness of the strawberries, but ordinarily you don’t ask about his personal life.

In a diffuse relationship, on the other hand, you have to justify leaving things out.  “You walked right past me and didn’t say a word.  What’s up?”

Many of my professional connections (and some personal ones) are now virtual.  I don’t work in an office; I tend not to have long-term projects.  I don’t have everyday, flesh-and-blood colleagues.  So I need to cultivate my virtual connections: strengthen the existing ones, get the new ones get well rooted.

In the physical workplace, most of your relationships are specific and often defined by various sorts of proximity.  You’re physically close.  You’re organizationally close (same team, same boss, same project, same department).  Or you what I think of as explicit proximity (relative position based on rank) and tacit proximity (based on relative depth of expertise).

As the distance increased (other floors, other departments, other cities), you have to work harder to establish and maintain good working relationships.  People don’t know you.

Reducing friction in your connections

When you cultivate relationships in the virtual workplace, you’re using different tools to increase proximity.  For a long time, we’ve had workplace tools to reduce physical distance and collapse time-zone distance.  Now we’ve got greater (and more frequent) distance, but also more powerful tools.

Can you BELIEVE those specs?One concept that’s important to me, as someone who typically works on his own, is the virtual cube-mate.  I like being able to stick my hear around a metaphorical partition to say, “Listen to this.”  Or “Do you know…?”  Or “Here we go again.”

But reducing virtual distance doesn’t mean that distance isn’t there.  And it doesn’t mean your in-person, interpersonal skill transfers to the virtual world.   As the Russian proverb says, your elbow is close, but it’s hard to bite.

I have a pet phrase for asides and parenthetical remarks I’ll make, especially in a one-to-one exchange like an instant-message conversation or a series of direct messages on Twitter: “conversation insurance.”  Things I do or say because:

  • I want to make myself clear (or clearer).
  • I want to avoid misunderstanding.
  • I’m trying to be more like myself.

Some of that’s just common sense (though common sense tells lots of people the earth is flat).  For instance, “I’m not disputing what you’re saying. I just think X applies as well…”  You go a little further because your message is going further.

Some of it, though, is simply engaging long enough (in some complex combination of individual units and elapsed time) that both parties are better able to form a pattern for the other that’s not a bad approximation of face-to-face.  Which, as I think about exchanges over the past two or three days, isn’t so much conversation insurance as connection oil.

I don’t know that there are Ten Quick Tips for this, which is too bad; I could have a workshop.  I do have a couple of notions:

  • Walk, don’t run. Trying to connect closely with everyone you know (and everything they know) just makes you one of those LinkedIn Lotharios, the kind of person in whom networking seems like an infectious disease.
  • Assume good faith. This guideline for Wikipedia editors encourages people to assume that others are trying to help, not hurt.
  • Don’t drive crossways in the parking lot. That was advice from a colleague to his new-driver sons: when you’re at the mall, always drive along the “roads” up and down the parking lot.  Don’t go cutting across the lanes because there’s an opening.  Other drivers may not expect you.

That last point is why I now use emoticons — at least on Twitter.

They’re conventions, not moral failings

I’ve been online a long time.  I’ve never cared for abbreviations like IMHO, YMMV, and so on.  I have a theory that each time someone types LOL, they lose a neuron.  So emoticons ( or, even worse, “smilies” ) made me shudder.

But… as I did online text-chat in Second Life, in French, I worried that my humor (or attempts at it) would be misunderstood.  So I’d add emoticons I saw my francophone friends using.  It hardly hurt at all, and people got to know me.

Likewise on Twitter — especially if I’m making a public comment to someone I don’t know well.  It’s easy to forget, if you’re only thinking of your chosen network, that not everyone knows you as well as you might think (or wish).  I can joke around with some people, but virtual passersby might not understand.  So an emoticon, or a few drops of some other form of connection oil, helps reduce the potential friction.

Online presence is a kind of invitation, but you have to work at figuring out what the invitation means for you.  Sometimes, as with what I call book blogs —, set up mainly to promote Hot New Book.  Those are invitations to come in, browse, and buy.  The author probably doesn’t have a lot of time to interact with everyone who’d like to interact with him.

Otherwise, if people are active on social sites, you have to work out how to interact with them.  In other words, it’s just like real life, except the conversation stops if your power goes out.

(I’d like to thank Chris, Dick, Heather, Jane, Kevin, Sahana, and Simon, whose conversations with me this week reinforced for me the value of virtual connections.)

My relationship images are based on this CC-licensed image by Doha Sam / Sam Agnew.
CC-licensed cube-mate photo by el frijole.

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