Thursday, May 22, 2008

Socialability Leading to Professional Work in Second Life

NOTE: This post is a short essay I wrote for one of my tech comm classes this week.

Nardi and Whittaker seem to have hit on a key component of establishing and nurturing useful, professional communication in virtual worlds like Second Life when they write “The creation and maintenance of communication zones involves two key processes: establishing social bonds that enable people to feel emotionally connected to one another, and managing ‘attentional contracts’ in which people agree (sometimes fleetingly) to pay attention to one another’s communications (page 4) ,” in their essay The Place of Face-to-Face Communication in Distributed Work.

I have noted that in the distributed environments in which I’ve worked, good communication hinges only secondarily on the necessity to exchange information, including small talk. I’m more willing to communicate – and communicate more honestly and openly – with co-workers with whom I’ve had positive social interactions, whether they take place inside or outside of work. Because our relationships with others tend to be dynamic rather than static, I agree with Nardi and Whittaker when they write that despite the advent of technology that makes distributed work easier, face-to-face communication remains “the most information-rich medium,” because “it is the surest way to establish and nurture the human relationships underlying business relationships (page 2).”

What is required is for technical communicators to think outside the box when it comes to using technology to create virtual (not literal) face-to-face communications that bring with them the social bonds and attentional contracts Nardi and Whittaker attribute to physical face-to-face meetings.

We’ve all experienced examples of virtual relationships establishing social bonds. For example, for the past two years, my wife and I have corresponded with a man in England, whom my wife first encountered when she responded to e-mails he sent to an archery equipment company she worked for. They built an easy e-mail friendship on mutual interests – she’d lived in England, both were interested in archery – that has been maintained and expanded, long past the time my wife quit working for the company where the initial contact was established. We have never met face to face, but through years of interacting via e-mail and with the occasional phone call, we have built a relationship that is “grounded in social bonding and symbolic expressions of commitment (page 2).” The symbolic expressions have gone beyond e-mails and phone calls to the exchange of gifts by mail, photo exchanges and ongoing letters to our eight-year-old son in which our English friend pretends to be Roddy from Flushed Away. We also maintain attentional contracts by responding to e-mails and listening to the mp3s and podcasts we exchange via e-mail, keeping up constant written correspondence that shows we care to listen to what the other has to say or share.

The same bonds, obviously, ought to be achievable in virtual worlds like Second Life, once users realize, like Tex Avery cartoon characters, that to truly interact that fourth wall (the screen) has to be broken. (A simple example: Droopy Dog is known for forever turning to the audience and exclaiming, in his sad voice, "You know what? I'm happy.") To tell the truth, I’ve been handicapped a bit in building social interactions in Second Life, but I’ve come to realize it’s not the technology that’s getting in the way – it’s the personality. It takes me a long time to make and maintain friendships in the real world, so I should not expect anything different in the virtual world. I should not get hung up on the fact that I’m having a difficult time with the shorthand communication that seems to be the norm in Second Life. I should, as Nardi and Whittaker recommend, focus on “not what people communicate about, but how they create a social environment in which they can communicate at all (page 3).” I can see now that my attempts to communicate with random strangers on Second Life were as fruitless as such attempts in the real world not because of the virtual environment, but because the social bonding and attentional contracting had not taken place.

Obviously, participants in our class’ Second Life meetings have found a way to create that social environment. Just in reading the discussions about that meeting in Blackboard have shown that Second Life does indeed have potential to bring people together socially to form those bonds necessary for work. The meetings seem to resemble a dinner Nardi and Whittaker write about: “The dinner was not a forum for exchanging business information; rather clients used the occasion to share details of the minor miseries of their work lives. It facilitated social bonding after the initial, task-focused pre-production meeting. As far as the work itself was concerned, that was already accomplished (page 10).” Obviously, if we could build on our sociality in Second Life, transmuting our interactions into a professional classroom setting, where we exchange ideas and information could also easily be accomplished. Rather than posting assignments such as this on Blackboard, we could just as easily exchange them with the virtual cards we’ve all received, giving us instruction on various Second Life aspects, much as Hiro and Juanita exchange information via cards in Snow Crash. With a little more practice and a stint at looking how Second Life could help us organize exchanged information, I can see how we could easily move our interactions from Blackboard to Second Life – barring the inherent difficulties with synchronous participation versus the advantages Blackboard’s asynchronous communication offers.

Many of us were critical of the DIVE approach to communicating and organizing – but upon further reflection, it’s clear how such organization could work to bring together the advantages of synchronous and asynchronous communication in a work setting. The possibilities, I see, are only opening.

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