Towards the end of 1996 I started working as a ‘Guide’ for the Mining Company (later About.com) with the exciting prospect of nurturing an online community around my chosen topic of Buddhism. However, I needed a landline connection and my landlady refused to offer any access, remarking, “The Internet has a softening effect.” She explained that the e-mails she had read as a charity volunteer showed a tendency to trivia and selfishness – our ability to communicate meaningfully was being eroded.
The warning resonates today when I observe the development of social media that promote sharing without requiring any thought. It seems we have long passed the days of netiquette where care was taken in online communications because we were conscious that physical clues such as body language are not present. Neuroscience studies have shown that the brain needs time to digest and evaluate information, but many services constrain our mental space as they promote rapid consumption and quick interactions. Social media deluge us with communications, typically encouraging instant responses and frequent status updates that feed restlessness. It is possible to ride these waves: some organisations use social media to foster dialogue by sharing words of wisdom through Twitter, dramatic pictures on Flickr and inspirational film on YouTube. Nevertheless however inspiring such expressions may be, this is largely promotion or instruction, where dialogue is limited.
Social media have made attention an even scarcer resource, yet careful attention is critical for effective dialogue, allowing clarification and attunement and also the removal of obstacles where there is appropriate support. We might expect social networking sites (SNS), which integrate many kinds of functions, to be natural candidates for building community, but at present where group synergy arises it is usually only to strengthen homogeneous networks and to weaken heterogeneous ones. What hope then for online interaction where we seek to gradually build bridges between people of conflicting views?
Dialogue requires that participants are able to restrain themselves, to hold space as much as to share words, to allow stillness, reflection and dissolution more than construction or disruption. The kinds of qualities required in meaningful dialogue are exemplified in Nonviolent Communication (NVC) which establishes principles of communication as: ‘honestly expressing how I am and what I would like without using blame, criticism or demands’ and ‘empathically receiving how another is and what he/she would like without hearing blame, criticisms or demands.’
So how might systems be designed to help foster the right attention? In 2004-5 I coordinated a project in which undergraduates recorded learning experiences through mobile blogging. They authored content offline using handheld computers and compact keyboards, jotting anywhere they felt comfortable. They then would periodically connect to the Internet through a laptop or desktop computer to share their experiences with peers and tutors on a private Web site. Their notes satisfied the goals of academic assessment, but went much further: they explored the broader picture of learning and were remarkable for their reflective and even poetic nature. This serendipitous outcome arose, I think, through several design factors: a simple tool, simple guidelines, and a protected space that allowed letting go.
These same factors may provide a useful impetus in designing SNS for dialogue. Starting with simplicity, we may reduce the complexity of SNS through abstraction and separation of concerns. For example, rather than treating all connections as ‘friends,’ which dilutes the nature of the connection and leads to proliferation, we may identify specific types of reciprocal relationships such as we have with parents, dependents, friends, and colleagues. Then we may prepare guidelines on how to use the status box to enhance the quality of communication in such relationships. In Buddhism there is the notion of fivefold virtuous speech – it’s undertaken at the right time, is truthful, with friendly intent, offers something beneficial, and is expressed nicely. If the SNS cultivates virtue, then the more it is used, the better the experience, and fulfilment will keep on increasing like studying something close to one’s heart. Practising skilful speech needs discipline and a sense of responsibility. It is difficult, but to use social media effectively we need to appreciate that something worthwhile is unlikely to be achieved instantly. The diachronic experience will start to tell us what functionality is essential to the dialogue and how the user interface can improve the quality of that dialogue.
Presently only a few bespoke systems can offer more than limited support for dialogue and these are oriented to training. An example is peacerevolution.net, where young peace activists learn to meditate; participants use a custom platform, where they follow a code of conduct and are supported by a number of clearly defined roles such as mentor. Offline and online activities are balanced harmoniously, so that the online phase leads on to meeting in person. Such tailor-made systems can thus be very effective, but need clear vision and require considerable resources to develop, maintain and manage.
I see dialogue as essentially an internal process – within a community, within a family, and most fundamentally within an individual – where personal reflection and realignment allows for external dialogue. If processes are clearly defined then social media can potentially provide useful support and I expect new kinds of SNS to emerge, but for now it may be safer to switch off our smartphones and tablets when we really want to help our dialogue partners.