Is Organizing the Same if It’s Not Done “In Real Life?”
Online communication is now so ubiquitous that people actual have taken to using the Twitter-friendly acronym IRL (in real life) to denote face-to-face conversations. Certainly in community building and campaigning around public policy concerns, the Internet has transformed utterly the work of forming the relationships upon which these efforts rely. Every day, communities of people who have never met and never will come together to try to affect change.
For the organizers of online communities of interest and advocacy campaigns, the “IRL” part of their job now can be almost entirely optional. But how much of the work has moved beyond face-to-face contact? How often do practitioners of advocacy make really valuable professional relationships with people they’ve never actually meet in person? Does that lack of a personal, IRL touch affect the quality of the work?
I posed these questions to the Connectivity editorial advisory board this week – only one of whom I’ve met personally, in fact (and not before he joined the board).
Alan Rosenblatt noted that his online presence facilitates meeting interesting new connections out in the real world. At a recent panel hosted by SocialMediaToday.com, where he’s a regular blogger, Rosenblatt said he met a the social media manager for the City of Boston who recognized him and introduced herself.
“In a very real sense, the relationships I have built with a network of activists I have never met has been invaluable,” Rosenblatt wrote in an email. “And over the years, I have had a chance to meet several of them at conferences like Netroots Nation and Take Back America/Our Future.”
“Networking is networking. If you approach online networking with the same kind of zeal and open-mindedness you approach offline networking, there is no reason it cannot be as fruitful.”
Pam Fielding, who’s also been in the digital organizing game from the start, had this reply:
“In my earliest work, we were creating the path to bring professional relationships and advocates into the digital age. We spoke at conferences, we wrote books, we built lists, we created editorial calendars, we made phone calls — and slowly but surely our relationships (like everyone else’s) began to converge with digital.
“Increasingly, I work in a ‘blended’ environment and I spend my work days strategizing ways to help our clients move citizens up the digital ladder of engagement. And sometimes, that ladder ends up with a face to face interaction between an advocate and an elected official!
“Of course, I love the opportunity to meet face to face, attend a conference, and grab lunch with a client or colleague. But I’ve also built amazing relationships with professionals across the globe — all online. Social media, SMS, Skype, Facetime, and email have made my digital connections easier and richer, but anyone who has spent time reading about social information processing theory knows the challenges we can face when we lack nonverbal cues to provide context to our engagement with others. Would I choose to live in a digital-only world, without the benefit of face to face? Unlikely, but I don’t know how I’d manage my world without digital.
Every day, I am amazed how digital transforms advocacy relationships — from helping me connect and build a fantastic friendship with a colleague in Brussels who shares my passion for digital citizen engagement online to client relationships that have taken our company from Washington, DC to Texas to Thailand to digital communications from individual citizens that move issues and create engagement, understanding and influence.”
Colin Delany notes that “we’re getting to a point where it’s becoming increasingly meaningless to distinguish between digital and in-person relationships in a lot of cases, though of course I still feel that most in-person encounters are more satisfying/fulfilling.”
Certain communication techniques like texting, he says, “let you hold people at arm’s length, while giving the illusion of intimacy.” But others like video conferencing have the potential to become more “real” still.
For the author, a comments section provides one escape from the impersonal nature of the written word. Please, dear readers, share your perspectives in the comments section below.