Monday, February 7, 2011

Is the virtual really real?

Once upon a time, I studied virtual communication. Whenever I mentioned this, a common response was ironic laughter. ‘You mustn’t have much to talk about,’ the thinking went, ‘because it’s not really communicating, is it?’ In their eyes the irony was that the virtual couldn’t possibly be ‘real’ communication by ‘real’ people.

Yet the knowledge that we’re in a ‘virtual revolution’ is so common now, there’s even a TV series about it.  Its tagline is “how 20 years of the web has reshaped our lives”. Forever. And the curious thing to me is that in our human history, each time there is a huge shift (and new tools) in the way we connect and share what we know or think, it takes some time for our social customs to catch up.

In using these new tools, some people get very concerned that our brains are being changed for the worse, that it signals the downfall of civilization as we know it and it regresses human behaviour. For these ‘disruptive innovations’  introduce a new way of being together, fundamentally changing the status quo, power balance, business models and our jobs too. But do they actually make us less human? Isn’t it up to each of us to ‘be real’ and choose our behaviours? With people as well as how we work in organisations?

I recently discussed this at the Melbourne Knowledge Management Leadership Forum (in the ‘Ignite’ format – a fast-paced 5 minute presentation). My slides are below.

A curious thing – the word ‘virtual’ has its roots in something very human and real indeed: it means “having the essence or effect”  and it comes from the Medieval Latin for ‘virtue’: “moral excellence and righteousness; goodness”.

So my thinking here is that the underlying behaviours and emotions that make us human remain the same – as do our motivations to behave or feel a certain way. Only the technology changes. And unless we really connect, it is not real. Not the fact that we might be physically co-located.

We’re all now familiar with the telephone. Yet the social customs of the telephone took a long time to become clear. Arranging social gatherings by telephone used to be considered vulgar, the proper etiquette was by a mailed letter. Bad behaviour was rife – we’d now call it ‘flaming’. In America in around 1910, some cities passed laws allowing authorities to fine or even jail those who behaved badly on the telephone.  To encourage civil behaviour AT&T created the “telephone pledge” which said “I believe in the Golden Rule and will try to be as Courteous and Considerate over the Telephone as if Face to Face”.

A wonderful early example of this is in the 1910 advertisement below. It starts off by saying "Courteous and considerate co-operation is as essential at the telephone as in the office or home"…

The social history of the telephone makes fascinating reading – there's some great passages here in this book by Claude S Fischer.

So the more things change, the more they stay the same. So too it is with using new communication mediums it seems! Social media is the one we’re grappling with now. It amplifies human behaviour – the good and the bad. It’s up to us to use it constructively and find the right balance.

So perhaps it’s about putting the ‘virtue’ back into ‘virtual’. And to not worry about the medium so much. Jump in, find where the people are, participate and create the meaning and connections for ourselves.