now available for purchase as a paperback & an ebook from Energize, Inc.
Published January 2014.
Learning to communicate online means learning to communicate primarily via written text. Yes, people are using audio and video, recorded or live, interact or deliver a message, Internet memes abound, and though not as in vogue as it was a few years ago, highly-advanced platforms like SecondLife are still used. Even so, text-based communication still plays the fundamental role in online interactions. And this can be a challenge for anyone, including those that work with volunteers. In fact, challenges in communicating via written text is a problem far harder to overcome for many people than using technology itself.
You will hear a lot that "it's hard to communicate online." It's no
harder than it is in face-to-face settings - it's just different. In fact,
many would say it's harder to communicate only vocally, face-to-face:
people can misinterpret facial expressions, tone, choice of words, body
language - even silence. A person's facial or voice "cues" about how they
are feeling are often misinterpreted by the viewer or listener, and
enthusiasm can be easy to fake face-to-face (or lack their of to hide).
You will experience a wide variety of communicators as you work with others online:
Working Together Online also noted "Never make assumptions about what you are reading. Learn to move slowly in what feels like a very fast medium." But note: that's true in face-to-face, entirely verbal situations as well!
One person who involves volunteers online said, "A few times when I 'etalked' with people for years as if they were undergrads, then found out they were department heads!!!"
The same has been true for me, only in reverse: A few times I have corresponded with an online volunteer for several weeks as if that person was a working professional, because of the tone of the person's e-mails and the quality of work. Later, I've realized, upon reviewing the original volunteer application, that the person is actually 14 or 15 years old!
Written online exchanges can't tell you everything about a person, just as knowing someone only from traditional, onsite work meetings cannot tell you everything about a person.
Brenda Ruth, then of the Boulder Community Network had a lot of experience working with online volunteers, and said,
"E-mail opens up lots of opportunities for people who aren't comfortable in face-to-face communication. I find that people are OK about saying, 'no,' more so than if I called or was in person. Falling back on my communication studies in college, this makes sense because so many 'yes' answers are prompted by how the request was made in voice tone, physical proximity and inclusion of touch.
"The most successful projects are when I have declared expectations of what I expect when, and the volunteer can agree to it, or not and turn it down, or modify. I also find this when working with organizations, that people who aren't direct in physical meetings are so by e-mail.
"There is also the documentation factor that is available on e-mail and not in physical contact. Knowing that people can relook at what is said, or save what was said I think changes interaction online. One can't fall back on the classic, 'I called and left several messages last week...' You have proof that you did or did not send or receive them. For me personally, I will double check facts before I write something I am only a little bit familiar with. Whereas in speaking I wouldn't hesitate to make an educated guess."
"Online volunteers may come from a variety of cultures and my everyday terms can mean something totally different to them. For instance, in Australia a 'downy' is what we call a comforter or bed cover in the US. I can usually tell when there is a cultural difference by the physical structure of the written grammar. I've learned to watch for these types of indicators.
"Some people probably remember doing an exercise in school where one person stands at a chalkboard and the class gives verbal instructions to guide them through drawing a shape. The person at the chalkboard has not seen the shape. Usually, the result is a very different from the intended shape.
"The most important instructional writing guideline is 'don't assume'. Most of us tend to forget to start at the beginning and include absolutely every step. A good experiment is to try writing yourself instructions for a task. Then, follow your instructions exactly as they are written.
"My policy is to write e-mail in the same manner I would write a recipe or instruction manual. I try to be clear, concise and present my thoughts step by step. The language I use is simple. I avoid technical terms and e-mail abbreviations and sniglets, unless I've worked with the person enough to know they will understand my references. "
Learning to communicate with volunteers primarily via written text is an ongoing process, and electronic communication isn't for everyone. John Bergeron, then of the Glaucoma Research Foundation, added,
Online Communities Are Not Online Newsletters
Treat online discussion groups and your networks on social media, particularly if those networks are people that know each other, as communities, as real as a physical neighborhood or an audience at a workshop or a meeting in real-time where everyone is in the same room. Online groups and social media are not online newsletters, they are not publications - they are meeting places.
Start Learning How to Communication Online: Lurk
You can start learning how to communicate online by observing how others do it - you don't have to post any messages at all. You can join Facebook, for instance, and then carefully put every person that you "friend" onto a list (or even more than one): one called neighbors, one called professional colleagues, one called family, etc. Apply the same principle to Google Plus, using "circles." This allows you to limit what people can see your messages to a social media platform, once you start publishing; some messages you might not want family to see, some messages you might not want professional colleagues/co-workers to see, etc. It also allows you to control what YOU want to see; you can look just at messages from co-workers, for instance, or just messages from neighbors. As you look at different users, note how they communicate. Note the difference in how, say, your mother communicates on social media compared to your local fire station.
Also, be sure to "like" or "follow" organizations on these kind of social media platforms, like your local fire station, your local police, your employer, organizations you would like to work for, nonprofits that are doing things you care about, political organizations, etc. Watch not only how these organizations communicate, but also, how people comment on these pages, and how these agencies respond (or don't) to these comments. Think as you read about your impressions of people posting. How do you tell something is truthful? How do you know how to trust someone online? Is anger always a bad thing online? Can anger be expressed without insulting?
You can also join Twitter, which is very different than the aforementioned social media networks, because it is limited to just 140 characters. Follow only those people and organizations on Twitter you really want to read regularly; put others on lists - one for media, for instance, another for people and organizations based just where you live, etc. - so you can easily see only specific information when you want.
Another great way to learn about the nuances of communicating with people online is to become a part of an online discussion group. Start by joining an online group that discusses something that is highly interesting to you, personally or professionally, something that you love learning about or talking about or reading about offline. This can be for a particular hobby, your favorite author, a sports team you follow, even a political issue. As you are already highly motivated by the topic, you should find yourself looking forward to reading the group often.
If you work with young people, you might consider joining a discussion group of a TV show that's popular with teens, and observe how the youth interact with each other.
You can find such groups on Facebook. You can also find such by going to
a search engine and typing in what you are looking for, such as
volunteer managers online discussion
online discussion human resources
online discussion WATSAN
online discussion group civil engineer
There is no better way to learn about online culture and how to communicate with others effectively via the written word than by observing online discussions! As you observe, think about how you want to be perceived online. Just as you act a certain way in a university classroom that will be very different than how you act at a concert, or how you act at a family event involving your grandparents will be very different than how you act in a meeting at work, you will say certain things online with some groups that you would not say to others.
And then, begin participating yourself! Start posting comments, responses and messages. Yes, you will make mistakes - just as you do when you open your mouth. Be deliberate, be thoughtful, and when in doubt, don't post/send it. Be sincere, be honest, be kind.
Also see these blogs from me:
Another resource that may help you to learn more about effective online communications may be the Virtual Volunteering Project's suggestions for accommodations for online volunteers who have learning disabilities or emotional and anxiety disorders. Most of these suggestions are fundamental to the successful management of ANY person via e-mail and the Web. This information also will help you address the various learning styles and working styles of online volunteers.
You may also want to refer your online volunteers (and all staff, actually) to these online Netiquette guides:
By Virginia Shea, published by Albion Books. This online edition contains all the text and graphics from the bound book.
Return to my volunteer-related resources
[an error occurred while processing this directive]