The Social Distance of Email and ICT

I’ve been reminded a lot over the past few days about the limits to email’s power and the social distance created by electronic tools. Email, even for the most careful writer, is fraught with difficulties in communicating issues of a sensitive manner or being emotive. Outside of the most simplest forms of expression, like rage or extreme joy (think: OMG!!!!!!!), there is so little opportunity to truly convey emotion or context without going into a long story.

I find it hard to convey emotions like frustration while not appearing to be angry, love (or affection and admiration) without looking trite, and confusion without seeming to be clueless. These are all complex emotions, ones that are better conveyed through a glance, a hug, or a sigh than they ever are by printed words. And yet, we expect to achieve strong, effective communication through email all the time.

Skype or iChat, both visual media, are better, but even then it is difficult to get the warmth (or cold) from another person at a distance. I’m reminded of the work of W. Brad Johnson and Charles Ridley and their book ‘The Elements of Mentoring’ where they synthesize the vast field of mentorship and conclude that face-to-face time is critical for effective mentorship. They also observe that apprenticeship, the highest form of learning, is done through collaboration — that is, co-labour. Working together, alongside one another, is what counts. This can’t be done remotely.

I’ve been very productive with groups of people whom I’ve never met, or seen sparingly. I’ve published articles, written grants, and created entire curricula without ever being in the same room with my collaborators. But in each of these cases, while there was a product created, there was no advancement of the relationship to sustain the benefit of that product to the world. The paper was created, it was now dead. Whereas those times I did the same thing working with someone, really working with them, the products were taken in many directions I couldn’t have anticipated. This is the goal of knowledge translation: to get knowledge into practice.

So if this is true, could it be that the fundamental core of any KT plan is to get people together and find ways for them to protect interaction time? Is it possible that our efforts at creating better dissemination strategies using distance tools is not the best use of our time?

3 Comments on “The Social Distance of Email and ICT

  1. Social networking has the same feel, or lack of. Many of my friends would rather talk on Facebook rather than getting together in person. I hated this and many other things about Facebook so I deleted my account. That was a year ago and I have no regrets. I pride myself on people actually having to text me or -god forbid- call me if they want to chat. Do you think these impersonal ways of communication will die out like a bad fad?

    • Thanks so much for your comment. I was one of the first people in my social world to join Facebook. Part of my research focuses on social media so I, unlike most, actually joined with the explicit sense of living an experiment in personal communication with no illusions about what it was going to mean for my social life. Despite this, Facebook took off in ways I hadn’t (but probably could have) anticipated. As more people got online and joined, so did the marketers. So too, did my ‘friends’ from other times and parts of life that I didn’t particularly care to revisit. Taken together, what seemed to be a chance to get more personal with some legitimate friends who I hadn’t connected well with in years became an overwhelming exercise in filtering trivial information. The depth that could have come from Facebook — or similar sites — was gone amidst the wave of content.

      There just isn’t time to read it all, so people stop writing anything meaningful.

      I would like to believe we’ll hit a point where we stop or slow down and return to making correspondence more intimate and, even better, actually get more intimate with the people physically close to us; have long conversations, get to know one another. But I’m skeptical.

      I’m reading Nicholas Carr’s new book, The Shallows, which goes into the history of reading (and attention) and also looks at how the Internet changes the neurocircuitry of the brain, effectively re-wiring us from beings that were comfortable with more sustained attention to reverting back to our more ‘natural’ state of what mindfulness researcher Jon Kabat Zinn refers to as ‘monkeymind’ .

      It’s an interesting book, but also disturbing as one contemplates how much the Internet is dividing our attention. Of course, being aware of the problem and getting concerned about it are the first steps to a remedy, so there is hope.

      • Cameron:

        In a similar vein, in our run-up to launching KTExchange.org, several of us on staff joined Facebook to see what this “social media” thing was all about. Along with being discovered by high school friends I haven’t spoken with in 30 years, I was dismayed by the number of current friends and acquaintances who are deeply addicted to Farmville and the like. I really, sincerely don’t care that you’ve just harvested your first bushel basket of virtual cucumbers.

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