The advantages and disadvantages of online communication are detailed in an earlier post.
Also, read 8 advantages of online communication
Online communication is not without shortcomings though many of those are perceived, rather than real. In this post, we outline eight disadvantages of online communication – some real, some perceived – specifically in the context of citizen engagement. Importantly, however, we outline strategies to overcome any shortcomings.
Disadvantages of Online Communication:
#1. Text-based online discussion necessarily excludes some people (like all methods)
Online forums predominantly rely on inputting text which can be challenging for those who can’t write, can’t spell, don’t like to write, have poor keyboard skills, have no access to a keyboard, live with a disability that prevents them from reading text and using a keyboard…
With the advance of broadband connectivity as well as voice and video conference technology, this will gradually become less of an issue to some extent.
This disadvantage is associated with an all text-based consultation processes, particularly the traditional statutory “submission” processes. We noticed that many people choose to “vote” to agree or disagree with other people’s comments rather than leaving their own; this may be a reflection of a lack of confidence in their own language and keyboard skills.
We have also noticed that while the majority of the comments demonstrate a relatively high degree of language skills, this is by no means always the case. We have seen comments written in an abbreviated SMS-style; comments written in broken English; and comments written using phonetic spelling. All of which indicate that online systems do not necessarily have to present a barrier to entry for people with poorer language skills.
#2. The lack of physical cues in online forums may lead to miscommunication
Without facial expressions and gestures or the ability to retract immediately, there’s a big risk of misunderstanding.
This can be a problem. There is not much room for wit and whimsy, humour and satire in the forum environment. Irony is lost on a very large proportion of our global population at the best of times (witness Alanis Morisette!). Of course people with different senses of humour have been misunderstanding each other forever. The use of “smileys” is not a particularly satisfying solution. The best solution to this limitation is to leave irony at the door when you enter a forum. When the visitors are not familiar with each other and have different views about a subject, they are better used as spaces for more serious discussion and dialogue.
On the other hand, the asynchronous nature of online forums provides participants the opportunity to be very careful in their phrasing to reduce this problem as far as reasonably possible. Synchronous tools, like chat, present more difficulties because of the temptation to fire off the first thought that comes to mind. Also, the vast majority of comments we see are factual or statements of a position rather than conversational in nature. They are made to the client, rather than to fellow participants of the forum. In this regard, issues to do with sensitivity to misunderstandings are much less fraught.
#3. Busy online discussion forums may cause information overload
A large volume of messages can be overwhelming and hard to follow, even stress-inducing.
This is difficult to argue with given the inexact nature of “large volume”. We have had consultations with up to 2500 comments. Is that a large volume? Not if you were running a national consultation on health reform in the US. But for a local issue about the location of a railway line, it was HUGE. We’ve seen individual discussion threads get to 4-600 comments. Is this overwhelming? We haven’t seen any evidence that it puts anyone of joining the discussion. In fact, we often see threads with the most comments attracting a disproportionate volume of new traffic, indicating that like a busy restaurant, people are attracted to the action, rather than put off by the “busyness”.
#4. Participants may accidentally go off-topic within a particular discussion thread
The logical sequence of discussion is often broken by users not sticking to the topic.
This problem only occurs in non-threaded forums, and it is precisely why we prefer to use threaded discussion forums. We also built in the “show replies/hide replies” buttons to allow readers to collapse the secondary comments at their volition when the conversation is not relevant or interesting.
#5. The time lag between commenting and receiving a response can seem an eternity
Even if you login daily, 24 hours can seem like a long time if you’re waiting for a reply; and then the discussion could have moved on and left you behind.
This line of though is unconvincing. A combination of good forum design, notification systems and personal diligence overcomes any difficulties arising from the delay in either receiving or posting a response.
A threaded discussion forum overcomes the problem of the “conversation moving on” by allowing the individual to jump into the forum wherever and whenever they want to. Notification systems using RSS and direct email provide ample opportunity for the individual to return to the conversation space at their volition.
#6. Online forums may feel inefficient for an individual
It takes longer than verbal conversation and so it’s hard to reply to all the points in a message, easily leaving questions unanswered.
We don’t see any evidence of this. In fact, we would argue that written responses very often provide a much better opportunity to properly construct a much more detailed and expansive response than verbal conversation. The time constraints of a verbal conversation very often place necessary constraints around the depth and breadth of responses.
#7. Online forums can feel isolated and isolating for people who like to learn in groups
Some people prefer to absorb information on their own and don’t participate in the discussions.
The ability to sit back and digest a comment or question and respond in one’s own time is one of the great benefits of online forums compared to face-to-face learning environments.
Participants who might ordinarily feel embarrassed, nervous or overwhelmed by their interlocutors are freed by the protectiveness of the combination of “comfort” factors – anonymity, timelessness, their own space etc.
#8. Online forums can feel directionless for people used to being spoon-fed
Participants used to having a teacher or instructor telling them what to do can find an online forum to be a leaderless environment, and that’s where tutors come in.
This is an interesting point and one where online citizen engagement has a lot of learning to do. I have written before about what I called the various “governance” arrangements for an organisation to interact with their forum communities. It is still very rare, so rare in fact that we have seen it only once, for an organisation to commit the resources to facilitating the conversation within the forum space. The facilitator would review all of the comments once a day (separately from our moderation, which is hourly). He would then either answer questions or ask follow up questions to try to draw the participants into a deeper discussion. Others have developed more sophistication around the online facilitation process, but sector has a lot to learn from educationalists.
10 December 2014
Note: You can find a significantly updated and expanded version of this post describing the benefits of online communication for community engagement here, and another describing the disadvantages of online communication of community engagement here.
I found this on Wikiversity, one of the many resources on Wikipedia, today. Whenever we talk about engaging communities online we are inevitably questioned about “exclusion” issues. What socio-demographic group does this technology favour? Who is being excluded from this debate?
As with any and all community engagement techniques, online community engagement is not a panacea. It has advantages and disadvantages. It is a relatively easy technology for some and relatively more difficult for others. There are two critical messages… No technique can stand alone. And, just because a technique is new that doesn’t mean it has to solve every single problem to be worthwhile.
What follows is drawn from a post on Wikiversity about online education. Many of the comments and lessons are similar and familiar, particularly if you think about the community engagement process as a mutual learning space.
Advantages and Disadvantages of Online Communication
|Flexibility: accessible 24×7, any place as long as you have an internet connection||Text-based: Predominantly relies on inputting text which can be challenging for those who don’t like to write or have poor keyboard skills, but with the advance of broadband connectivity and voice and video conference technology – this will be less of an issue.|
|Levelling: reserved people who usually don’t speak up can say as much as they like while “loud” people are just another voice and can’t interrupt||No physical cues: without facial expressions and gestures or the ability to retract immediately there’s a big risk of misunderstanding|
|Documented: unlike verbal conversation, online discussion is lasting and can be revisited||Information overload: a large volume of messages can be overwhelming and hard to follow, even stress-inducing|
|Encourages reflection: participants don’t have to contribute until they’ve thought about the issue and feel ready||Threads: logical sequence of discussion is often broken by users not sticking to the topic (thread)|
|Relevance: provides a place for real life examples and experience to be exchanged||Time lag: even if you log on daily, 24 hours can seem like a long time if you’re waiting for a reply; and then the discussion could have moved on and left you behind|
|Choice: a quick question or comment, or a long reflective account are equally possible||Inefficient: it takes longer than verbal conversation and so it’s hard to reply to all the points in a message, easily leaving questions unanswered|
|Community: over time can develop into a supportive, stimulating community which participants come to regard as the high point of their course||Isolation: some learners prefer to learn on their own and don’t participate in the discussions|
|Limitless: you can never predict where the discussion will go; the unexpected often results in increased incidental learning||Directionless: participants used to having a teacher or instructor telling them what to do can find it a leaderless environment (and that’s where tutors come in|
Photo Credit: Good, Bad & Ugly by Nishanth Jois
2 November 2008