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Some of you noticed a spirited exchange in the ChatterBox between myself and another monk this morning, as he attempted to understand a point I was trying to make in a certain thread. While I can't necessarily speak for his views on the subject, I wasn't entirely satisfied with the results of the conversation. This lead me to ponder the difficulties of online communication, the risks associated with it, and my ways of trying to prevent issues from cropping up.

(Please understand that I did not consider that a flame war, nor am I trying to incite one. The specifics around that conversation aren't germane to this discussion. I am not criticizing the other person, nor am I attempting to fix any blame. More later.)

Let's start with certain assertions. In Communications 101, you learn that communication is a process consisting of a:

  • Sender
  • Message
  • Receiver
  • Medium for transmitting the message

Furthermore, communication can fail for a number of reasons, including (but, by no means limited to):

  • Poorly-composed or ill-conceived messages
  • Unclear presentation by the sender
  • Inattention on the part of the receiver
  • Impurities in the medium (also called "noise in the channel")
  • Unexpected evironmental factors that otherwise corrupt the message and/or the process itself

The sender and the recipient each have two important responsibilities in the communication process:

  1. The sender is responsible for providing the initial transmission of the message.
  2. The recipient is responsible for being open to that message, even it it contains unpleasant or undesireable information.
  3. Both are responsible for validating the success of the transmission.
    1. The sender must verify that the intended message is received
    2. The receiver must verify that they heard the intended message

As you probably know, the most successful communications are face-to-face conversations. Even if any of the previous conditions occur, you can often obviate them through clarification, context evaluation, or interpreting visual cues, such as body language, vocal tone, and so on.

These luxuries are not available in online arenas and we've all seen flame wars ignite from simple misunderstandings. Granted, we've learned typographic conventions for expressing some of the subtext, (emoticons, SHOUTING, TLA's, describing physical actions such as *sigh*, and so on), but those are crude and very limited approximations.

Because online text is nothing more than electrons striking phosphors, we often find ourselves filling in that missing subtext, generally assuming that the other person is responding the way we would in a given circumstance.

Now...I hold these "truths" to be self-evident:

  • People who regularly participate in online communities are trying to learn and to help others learn.
  • Behind every 'nym (nick, screen name, login ID) lurks a very real person, with ideals, goals, dreams, asperations, and experiences as real to them as the ones I hold are to me.
  • Many flame wars are caused by misinterpretation, which in this context is a failure in the communication process.
  • It is better to fix problems, rather than blame.
  • People who are upset or frustrated respond poorly when challenged
  • Name calling, in any form, does not help the communication process.
  • No one is perfect or right all the time.
  • Everyone is right at least some of the time.
  • No one has the PSI::ESP module installed.
  • In general, people treat others the way they wish to be treated.
  • I may be worried about a lot of things, but I should not take my personal frustrations out on you.
  • Some people really are boneheads, but there are fewer of these than we're willing to admit.
  • Perception is usually 9/10th's of the flaw.

Having said all this, here are a few points to consider when reviewing my posts:

  • I rarely fix blame; I am simply suggesting alternatives or ideas for consideration.

  • I value each individual and therefore avoid comments that could be seen as embarassing, insulting, sarcastic, or making you look foolish.

  • If you don't get my point, talk to me about it (preferably in private). My email address is not obviously public, but I am happy to provide it on request.

  • I will happily discuss specifics in private; I am reluctant to discuss them in public. I do not feel it is wise (or even helpful) to air dirty laundry in public.

  • I am not always certain of my conclusions, so I prefer to allow others (and myself) the opportunity to graciously acknowledge mistaken or incorrect assertions.

  • Sometimes, I am vague in an attempt to further the conversation and learn more.

  • It is better to graciously accept alternate interpretations rather than to continue to attempt to convince someone that you're right and they're wrong.

  • Real change, like real education, comes from within. If you work it through yourself, you will make certain connections that you would otherwise miss if you were always handed the complete solution.

    Similarly, it's not my place to tell you to change. Only you can make that choice.

  • Criticism is meant to help you make those connections; it's not an attack.

  • If we're having problems with the communications process, consider taking a break. Perhaps I'm not hearing the message you're trying to communicate or perhaps I'm not communicating effectively.

  • I don't expect you to agree with me; only to listen.

  • Don't expect me to understand that you're joking unless you clearly mark it as such. Similarly, don't expect me to understand your personal idioms or mannerisms until you've explained them to me at least once.

  • When I am specific or completely direct, take the time to listen to me.

In short, please assume that any conversation, no matter how difficult, is an attempt to further understanding in some fashion. Yes, I ask stupid questions about Perl--because I'm still learning it. Allow me the same latitude with regard to you...or your online personality, at any rate.

So, why is this a meditation? Primarily because I believe that these issues are things many of you deal with in your own ways. How do you manage your online communications to ensure successful processes? How do you respond when there is noise in the channel? What's your personal form of dealing with the lack of a PSI::ESP module?

In closing, allow me to offer a (slightly edited) quote from a friend, one I find instructional and cautionary:

Behold: A man.
  A dichotomy in living form.
    An enigma that steps on others' toes.
      A great enemy of his own tongue.

I don't ever want to be that man.


In reply to On Online Communication by footpad

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