Revised as of March 9, 2011

   The Last Virtual Volunteering Guidebook

now available for purchase as a paperback & an ebook from Energize, Inc.

Completely revised and updated!
Published January 2014.

Coyote Communications Technology Tip Sheet Logo
The Basics of Online Culture & Community
(especially for those who work with volunteers)

Online culture still exists, primarily, via the written word. Yes, people are using audio and video, recorded or live, more and more to interact, or highly-advanced platforms like SecondLife, but even when such is used, text-based communication still plays a fundamental role in online interactions.

Learning to communicate primarily via written text can be a challenge for volunteer and manager alike, even when supplemented by audio, video and avatars. In fact, challenges in communicating via written text is a problem far harder to overcome for many people than using technology itself.

You will experience a wide variety of communicators as you work with others online (including < A HREF="../volunteer/ovmyths.html">online volunteers):

As is noted in Working Together Online, an excellent publication by Maureen James and Liz Rykert (that, sadly, is no longer available), "Drawing out the human tone and feelings from online text can be tricky." Even silence can be misinterpreted. "One reason that silence occurs is that the person posting the message hasn't been clear about what kind of response they are looking for."

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."

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, and can even be unintentionally misleading. Also, working with volunteers online, even those you have met face-to-face at some point, means you are unable to visually read a person's facial or voice "cues" about how they are feeling, their enthusiasm (or lack their of), etc.

Brenda Ruth, then of the Boulder Community Network had a lot of experience working with online volunteers, and said,

Penny Leisch, then of the Arizona Pioneers' Home Volunteers Association offered this advice for communicating with volunteers via e-mail:

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, not Online Newsletters

Treat online discussion groups 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. They are not online newsletters, they are not publications - they are meeting places.

Email-based discussion groups work thusly: mail messages go to a central point and are then "reflected" automatically and, usually, immediately, back to all who subscribe to the group. It is free to subscribe to the following groups, however, please note when you subscribe that the address for subscriptions is DIFFERENT than the address for posting comments and questions.

Most of these email-based groups provide you with the option of receiving messages in "digest" mode, which means you receive all of a day's messages for a list in one email. If you are subscribing to more than one list, you will probably want to enable this option (check the "welcome" message you receive after you subscribe for directions on how to receive the list in digest mode). OR, create filters, so that all messages from a particular list go into their own folder within your e-mail program.

Some of these groups are also, or alternatively, offered as web-based discussions as well, meaning that you must go to a particular web site to read and respond to messages. This keeps messages out of your email inbox (and it's my preferred way to subscribe to any group that offers this option).

Start Learning How to Communication Online:
Join an Online Discussion Group

A 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.

You can also join a group for volunteer managers, though look for more than one, as they vary greatly in terms of tone and focus. 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.

I think the best online groups are found on YahooGroups and GoogleGroups, or by simply 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

A good group to teach yourself about facilitating online groups is Online Facilitation, an online discussion group regarding the skills, techniques and issues around facilitation in Internet online environments and virtual communities. Once you join, you can read through the archive of previous messages (always read through message archives for at least a few days before you make your first post).

As you observe (or "lurk") on these groups, notice the variety of ways people relate to each other via written communications, the differences in communication styles among people of different age groups, how the "culture" of each group is unique, how someone may get upset about a message that he or she interpreted as "hostile" but that looked quite benign to you, and so forth. Look for ways that people make their e-mails as appealing as possible -- the way the introduce a topic, the way the sign their e-mails, the way they respond to others, and so forth. If you feel comfortable, you might want to post a message yourself and actively participate.

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 discussion groups!

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. These are part of the Project's suggestions for Working via the Internet with volunteers who have disabilities.

You may also want to refer your online volunteers (and all staff, actually) to these online Netiquette guides:

Also see:  
Return to my list of resources relating to online culture & communities of volunteers

Return to my volunteer-related resources


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