Revised as of November 13, 2015

   The Last Virtual Volunteering Guidebook

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

Published January 2014.

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

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:

Some of the best advice about working with others online comes from early articles on such:

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." 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,

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

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

As you observe (or "lurk") on these groups and networks, 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 emails or social media posts as appealing as possible -- the way the introduce a topic, the way the sign their emails, the way they respond to others, and so forth.

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:

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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