I met Abby Johnson at a reception Monday evening by saying, “Hi, I know you. My name’s Sara.” ‘Cause even though I’d never talked to her before, I did feel like I knew her; I read her blog, I follow her Emerging Leaders list on Twitter, and we (along with 80 or so other people) had spent an entire day in the same room on Friday for the official start of our ALA Emerging Leaders program.
The same feeling of knowing people I hadn’t met had been a common theme that day and throughout the rest of the weekend. And despite several such encounters, I never really mastered the protocol of introducing myself to someone I felt like I already knew.
Anyway, Abby and I were talking about how nice it was to be able to meet people in person before starting work on the virtual teams that are part of our Emerging Leaders project; as much as we (and by “we” I mean people who write about these things on the Internet) talk about how great it is to be able to work virtually and long-distance (and I’m not arguing that it’s not), I think those experiences are better and more productive when they’re built on real-world relationships. I know that being able to put names, faces, and conversations about Exhibit Hall strategy to the people I’m collaborating with virtually makes them far more real to me than if we’d simply exchanged Twitter names and e-mail addresses.
It is, I think most can agree, all too easy to forget that the people we connect with virtually are dynamic, real people unless we have a real-world connection to them. And I’m not just talking about being rude, or saying hurtful things, or assuming the worst of someone’s motives. It’s simply about being more able to give someone the benefit of the doubt because you have a real person’s image in your head. It’s a lot easier to empathize with someone when they’re more than just disembodied text on your screen.
Making virtual connections more real can work in the opposite direction as well. I’ve tried, unsuccessfully, several times to explain Twitter to my mom. I was able to explain how things worked, but a grasp of the “why” eluded her. Until I told her about #strandedatala, the hashtag a group of us whose flights had gotten cancelled used to organize ourselves while we were still in San Diego. Tuesday night I ended up having dinner with 18 or so people I’d never met—and never would have met if we hadn’t been able to use Twitter to organize ourselves. And, given that it was mostly East-coasters who were stranded, I made connections with several people from Connecticut. These real-world connections would not have been possible without an on-line connection—and those real world encounters will be made stronger as we continue to communicate on-line. And yes, it’s distinctly possible I could have made these connections strictly online, and made a professional relationship that way. But if I’d never had a real-world encounter with these people on-line, I think something would, inevitably, be missing from our on-line communications.
I’ve noticed, too, over the past several years, the value that communicating via Facebook or Twitter has added to long-standing offline friendships—even friendships I have with people that I see regularly, but even more so with people that I see less often. I know everyone complains about mundane status updates, but knowing about the details of day-to-day life is important to a friendship.
Think about where some of your most intense—if not long lasting—friendships happened. College, right? Living in a dorm? Where you couldn’t help but be immersed in the day-to-day mundanity of your friends’ lives? I don’t think that’s a coincidence. And that, too, is likely why not all college friendships—even the ones that seem most intense—stand the test of time. When you’re not immersed in the day-to-day, you lose that level of shared experience that contributes to a friendship. Online social networks make it possible to stay connected to the day-to-day of your friends’ lives.
I would also be remiss if I didn’t note that when I posted about multiple flight cancellations, and worrying about being stranded overnight or having to unearth my car when I got home, friends responded immediately with offers of a place to stay or a ride. To have friends reach out with offers of help, especially from so far away, especially friends I hadn’t been in touch with for a while, was, well. . . the word “awesome” comes to mind.
I know this blog is, ostensibly, student and learning focused, so I’m gonna try and bring it around to that. The chances are pretty good that our students will need to work virtually—both with people they do know in person, and people they don’t. This is the value in having students who are in the same school and in the same class work on projects that involve virtual communication; students can learn how to build on-line working relationships that are built on the foundation of an off-line relationship. And knowing how to do that is a crucial step in learning how to communicate productively with someone you don’t have an off-line relationship with.
Do teenagers always behave themselves when communicating in online environments (whether for school or not)? No. And we already know that. But they’re not going to magically figure it out either. Their world—our world—will involve virtual communication; isn’t it a good idea to teach them how to go about doing that? And where better to teach them in a classroom, where not only are they answerable to their peers, but there is a teacher to guide everyone through the process.