Introduction: How Groups Communicate
While the fundamentals of group communication remain largely intact, the means by which a group is able to form, interact and coalesce around tasks and common interests has been indelibly altered by technology. David W. Johnson’s definition of group communication, provided in the text of Joining Together, still applies: “a message sent by a group member to one or more receivers with the conscious intent of affecting the receivers’ behavior (2006).” How this exchange takes place is the focus of this paper, with a particular emphasis on how the Internet is continually challenging the definition of a group while creating new ways to form and maintain groups through self-governance.
Joining Together provides a number of factors that impact the effectiveness of group communication, including: group climate, norms, physical setting, seating arrangements, and humor (Johnson & Johnson, 2009). It is within these influences that the blurring of affect becomes apparent when comparing traditional groups to those that exist in a virtual form. While group climate and norms are ever-present with all groups, and are likely the defining characteristics of what makes a group a group, the use of technology requires a re-evaluation of the other influences. Typically, the physical setting is simply removed from the equation altogether, or it is recreated in a virtual reality setting that mimics an in-person interactive environment. Humor may not be as important when the virtual group is focused on a specific task or common interest and the group’s membership spans multiple geographies where the nuance of humor may not transcend the various cultures.
As social creatures, or social animals (de Spinoza) we will always have a need for groups. Acknowledged long before the invention of the Internet, it is clear that humans “are scarcely able to lead a solitary life, so that the definition of man as a social animal has met with general assent; in fact, men do derive from social life much more convenience than injury (de Spinoza, 2006 based on original work in 1677).”
This need for connectedness and the innate sense of human beings working together toward common goals or in the exploration of common interests is as relevant in the virtual world as it is in the physical world. Technological innovation has simply provided new tools, new methods and new contexts within which to facilitate these interactions and to forge these groups. What remains to be seen is whether the “rules” by which group members communicate and interact are still applicable, or if these need to evolve as well.
How Technology is Changing Groups and Communication
To fully appreciate the impact of the most recent technological revolution and its impact on how humans interact, relate to the world, and form groups, it is instructive to look back to the fifteenth century, when Johannes Gutenberg’s invention of the moveable type printing press forever changed how people were able to communicate across geographies and cultures.
A thought leader on modern communication technology and media, Howard Rheingold, made this comparison in a 2005 Technology Education Design (TED) Conference presentation entitled Way-New Collaboration. He explained that the ways in which human beings organize socially has been co-evolving for millennia, tracing back to the days when hunters of the great beasts of the time would exchange their surplus food for things of value, thus forming communities of trade and interdependence. Forming groups for survival is an innate behavior, but forming groups around an intellectual commons traces its roots to the period immediately following the introduction of Gutenberg’s printing press, which enabled “new forms of collective action … in the spheres of knowledge, religion and politics (Rheingold, 2005).”
Just as the printing press had a transformational impact on society in its day, the Internet is making a similar impact today. Rheingold describes a number of characteristics of the new technology that make it conducive to group formation and communication, including: ease of use, openness, self-instructing, enabling connections and intentionally group forming (2005). With the introduction of email, it was possible to bypass hierarchical and traditional structures to communicate directly with people who were previously unreachable, and this has only been intensified by web logs (blogs) and “wikis” that allow anyone in the world with access to a computer and an Internet connection to publish to a worldwide audience.
And that world seems to be getting smaller with each technological advance. If the printing press made it possible for one person’s thoughts to be accessible to many others around the world, the Internet has only accelerated this effect and decreased the barriers to entry that once existed. Stanley Milgram’s “small world” experiment (1967) ultimately became the basis for the subsequent “six degrees of separation” theory, and the later book Six Degrees, in which the author demonstrates that even on a planet populated by billions of people living in hundreds of nations and within thousands of cultures and subcultures, we are all frequently closer than we realize to others. (Watts, 2003)
“This is not really the small-world phenomenon – it’s more like a small-group phenomenon,” posits Watts in Six Degrees (2003, pg. 41). What this research pointed out for Watts, and others, was the way people would be able to use this relative proximity to get messages to others whom they could not previously connect with, and to create groups based on common interests or common goals where such a group could not have existed in the past because of the lack of a means to connect and hold such a group together.
While it was not clear at the time, Milgram’s research and the subsequent exploration of the “six degrees of separation” helped to create the framework for today’s Internet-based social networks. If one person has, conservatively speaking, five friends and five close acquaintances, and each of these friends has a similar set of friends and acquaintances, this quickly becomes a social network which, at only the second degree, consists of 60 people. (See Figure 1)
The business social networking tool LinkedIn is based on this construct, in which any member is able to assemble their own first level of contacts, friends and associates and then visualize through this first degree a second and third level of contacts. To help make these contacts more meaningful, LinkedIn introduced professional and common-interest groups which members could join, leading to a clustering effect that helped to align the interests of the LinkedIn members and create new linking possibilities based on common backgrounds or interests.
Figure 1: A branching network to demonstrate degrees of separation.
Scholar and author Dr. Clay Shirky offers a perspective that helps to explain the evolution of how groups communicate, while acknowledging that the change from a structured group environment to one that is virtual in nature has inherent risks:
“How do groups get anything done? How do you organize a group of individuals so that the output of the group is something coherent and of lasting value, instead of just being chaos (Shirky, 2005)?”
It was with this question that Dr. Shirky opened his TEDGlobal presentation at Oxford University and described the principle change from the old model of groups to the new and emerging model. The old model required a structure typically spearheaded by an institution, and the old model was burdened by high coordination costs to create a system of governance, to create parameters for group membership, and to coordinate and curate the efforts of a select membership in the support of the institution’s stated goals. The new model, which allows groups to form spontaneously around a common set of goals or interests, is made possible by the Internet and has a built-in cooperative infrastructure (Shirky, 2005).
In The Real Life Social Network, Google researcher Paul Adams outlined the evolution of the Internet in very simple terms: it was originally created as a way to link documents together using hypertext language, and in that form the Internet was static. This is sometimes referred to as Web 1.0, or the first iteration of the Internet. Over time, the Internet “evolved” to facilitate interactive content and media, and in its present state the Internet is becoming more social, “a web built around people.” This social web is commonly called Web 2.0, differentiated from Web 1.0 because of the dynamic environment that not only enables connections but also actively builds an identity across multiple sites for participants. According to Adams, “people are spending much more time interacting with other people, and much less time consuming content from websites. This shift is not about any one particular social network; it’s about people connecting to each other online. (2010).”
In a study commissioned by Samsung Advanced Institute of Technology (SAIT), the concept of the “mobile community” is defined as “an extension of physical community merged with online community (Rhee & Lee, 2009).” The authors identified four quadrants in which mobile communities are emerging: work, relations, services, and entertainment. (See Figure 2) Each quadrant is further defined by a driving purpose, such as efficiency of work between coworkers in an organization driven by financial goals, or sharing of common interests fulfilled by entertainment. Some of these communities are highly structured, particularly those in the work environment, while others are dynamic and often characterized by a continual state of flux.
Figure 2: Virtual (mobile) communities by purpose and composition.
The main point of the Samsung study was to evaluate the potential of mobile phones and devices in the commercial market corresponding to the increased demand for connectivity and belonging. With ubiquitous access to the Internet, not only from a fixed location such as a computer but also from mobile devices, the notion of “community” has also evolved or morphed from a sense of place or locale to “groups organized around common values and common interests (Rhee & Lee, 2009).” Even the concept of a telephone has changed dramatically in the last decade, from a tool that supported dyadic, one-to-one communications to a device that supports many-to-many interactions with rich layers of media, location and information that round out the dimensions of virtual communication, taking the place of the physical settings of the more traditional communications of the last century.
Analyzing Group Communication in a Virtual Context
Joining Together outlines three ways that group communications can be analyzed: interaction among members, the communication network in the group, and the nature of one-way and two-way communications within authority hierarchies. (Johnson & Johnson, 2009) It is still possible to analyze the effectiveness of group communication and the quality and patterns of interaction in a virtual context, but the methods must evolve to keep up with the technology and stay relevant to a revised schema of group interaction.
In a recent presentation at Rollins College, Dr. Clay Shirky explained how groups have changed from what was once a “center to edge” structure where they were held together by either institutional structure or culture. Groups today, particularly those that interact virtually, are dynamic and the members are able to interact with no rigid structure, protocol or convening authority (2010).
For starters, it is instructive to look at the ostensive and performative models of organizational process, initially described by Feldman & Pentland in 2003 and further elaborated upon in a Boeing research study entitled Models of Collaboration as the Foundation for Collaboration Technologies. The ostensive aspect of the model is a description of intent; how is the collaboration intended to work. The performative aspect provides the real-world application of the theory, accounting for the human element that will inevitably create variation in the intended process (Poltrock & Handel, 2010).
“Collaboration would be easy if everyone could work independently toward a shared goal without any need for interaction. In reality, collaboration requires managing the dependencies among people, processes, and objects. [There are] three basic types of dependencies – flow, sharing, and fit (Poltrock & Handel, 2010, pg. 104).”
To measure the effectiveness of group communications outside of a homogeneous entity, it would be necessary to isolate the interpersonal aspects of the group communication process and separate them from system issues that could confound the interaction, specifically related to flow, sharing and fit. Computer-mediated communication (CMC) tools make it possible to identify and record the various interactions of members, and the patterns of communication within the group would ultimately emerge with a detailed analysis and recording of each discrete communication over time. As for the hierarchical communication, this would vary dramatically from group to group, and would depend in part on the purpose of the group and its structure. Increasingly, virtual groups are self-governing and self-directed, so while there may be a group leader in place each member is usually expected to proactively communicate with other members directly.
In the previously cited Samsung study, the authors highlighted the activities of “mobile communities” in the social networking context as follows: sharing, contacting, and collaborating. With virtual groups and communities, the basis for measuring the effectiveness of the group’s communication is largely based on the cumulative work that is visible to the members, content-driven to a large extent.
Increasingly, the ostensive component of a group’s interaction process and the purpose for the group itself begins as a vague concept, such as the creation of Wikipedia or the development of the Linux operating system platform. A virtual group’s true value and sustainability are driven more by the performative aspects of their aggregate efforts and the self-governance by which they remain focused on their core goals to the exclusion of other distractions or tangents. And the communication between the group members frequently is the work product itself, a cumulative effort where one group member builds upon the work of another to shape the visible evidence of the group’s purpose, expertise and efficacy.
Google researcher Paul Adams pointed out that “social networks are not new (2010),” and he reinforced the point that humans have drawn on their social networks for centuries as a means of survival and as a basis for progress in what we commonly call civilization. “The emergence of the social web is simply our online world catching up with our offline world. As technology changes the tools we use to communicate, we still use the same behavior patterns that we evolved over those thousands of years (Adams, 2010).” Social networks are simply a reflection of how humans interact naturally, enhanced by technology but ultimately supporting a pattern of human group behaviors that dates back 10,000 years.
As people try to grasp both the purpose and the potential of social networking on the Internet, in many cases the aesthetic of one site such as Facebook may appear to have an advantage over a community building site such as Ning. Over time, the online social networks will emphasize function over form, increasingly creating the means for people to connect across physical, cultural and geographical boundaries with others who share common interests and common goals.
Individually, we are likely to identify with many groups in the context of social networking, and with a site like Facebook the entire base of friends is oversimplified as a single group. In reality, we see ourselves as members of six or more groups formed around life stages (Adams, 2010). These groups may include our families; our work colleagues; social friends and acquaintances; childhood and long-time friends; groups we belong to by virtue of proximity; and groups we belong to by choice because of our goals and interests. It is up to us to actively manage these myriad relationships, make sense of our roles and contributions within each of these groups and determine the methods by which we can best engage with each.
Going back to the factors that impact group communications and the effectiveness of a group’s interactions, in place of the physical settings and seating arrangements of a traditional face-to-face group meeting, the most important element of a virtual group’s effectiveness is the aggregate contribution of its members to a unifying set of interests and/or goals. The communications between members not only affect the behaviors of the other members but also constitute the visible proof of the group’s purpose, existence and net contributions toward the goals and interests.
In other words, groups that take advantage of technology to form and interact can thrive even without an elaborate, ostensive and process-oriented system, provided that the members of the group share a common purpose, a common understanding of what they seek to achieve by virtue of their group membership, and an active dialogue through available channels of communication in pursuit of the group’s objectives. In this case, the performative aspects of the group’s work will be the most tangible and relevant.
Adams, P. (2010). The real life social network [PowerPoint slides]. Retrieved from http://www.slideshare.net/padday/the-real-life-social-network-v2
de Spinoza, B. (2006). The ethics. Middlesex, UK: The Echo Library. Retrieved from http://books.google.com/books?isbn=1406806838
Johnson, D. & Johnson, F. (2009). Joining together: Group theory and group skills (10th ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pearson.
Poltrock, S. & Handel, M. (2010). Models of collaboration as the foundation for collaboration technologies. Journal of Management Information Systems, 27(1), 97-122.
Rhee, Y. & Lee, J. (2009). A model of mobile community: Designing user interfaces to support group interaction. Samsung Electronics SAIT CS Lab. Retrieved from http://www.dubberly.com/…/a-model-of-mobile-community.html
Rheingold, H. (2005). Way-new collaboration. [Technology Education Design (TED) Video]. Retrieved from http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/eng/howard_rheingold_on_ collaboration.html
Shirky, C. (2005). Institutions vs. collaboration. [Technology Education Design (TED) Video], Retrieved from http://www.ted.com/talks/lang/eng/clay_shirky_on_institutions_versus_ collaboration.html
Shirky, C. (2010, November). Creativity and generosity in a connected age. Presentation at Rollins College Founders’ Day, Winter Park, FL.
Watts, D. (2003). Six degrees: The science of a connected age. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.
Social Networks: How Technology is Transforming Groups and Communication
HRDV 5560 Group Development & Change
Dr. Barbara Seifert
November 15, 2010