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On the glorious weirdness of connecting with people online.

It’s rare in this fast-paced world of Twitter and synchronous communications to come across high-quality reflections on how we connect online both professionally and personally. The video below, put together by D’Arcy Norman with contributions from the likes of Dean Shareski, Jim Groom and Barbara Ganley, is 15 minutes long. It’s absolutely worth your time – watch it now:

How do you connect to people online? from D’Arcy Norman on Vimeo.

Connecting with people online is, in a sense, a very strange experience. I can know a lot more about someone that I’ve never (and probably will never) meet in person who lives on the other side of the world than I ever will about a work colleague. In fact, as I’ve often commented to people when doing this, I think meeting people online actually leads to better relationships than if the situation is reversed.

For instance, this might sound silly but I’m always very careful never to wear my glasses when meeting people for the first time. Why? I don’t want them to pigeon-hole me. The next time they see me and I’ve got my contact lenses in I’m the guy ‘not wearing his glasses’. It’s a perception thing.

Meet people online, however, and it’s almost a window into their soul. One thing I find fascinating is people’s choice of avatar on Twitter. Some people choose to have an image of themselves to aid recognition when people meet them in person. Others change their avatar often. The people I’m interested in, though, are people like me: people who stick to one avatar and use it everywhere they go online. Presumably that’s because their avatar says something about them. Here’s a few by way of example from people in my Twitter network – what do you think their avatar and bio says about them?

@lisibo

@lisibo

Primary MFL teacher, ADE, eTwinning Ambassador, speaker and blogger, improving techie and generally enthusiastic gal who loves her iPhone

@durff

@durff

[no bio]

@gsiemens

@gsiemens

Changing the node set…

In the video embedded above, Dave Cormier talks about the ‘light’ connections we make with people and how these build up over time. I think this is what D’Arcy Norman (author of the video and, as of last month, no longer on Twitter) and Stephen Downes (a one-way user of Twitter) don’t get about social networking. Yes, 140 characters may be all too brief. But if I connect with you 50 times over the course of a few days, having had to craft each message to fit within the 140-character constraint, I bet we know each other a whole lot more than we did previously. And then you can go and look at my Flickr stream, my blog, etc. for more background. It’s not a replacement, it’s complementary.

Knowing an individual’s personal background and beliefs helps you judge when making decisions on whether to follow their advice and/or lead. But that’s not always best done only on the strength of meeting them face-to-face. I, for example, am much better (in terms of being coherent, understandable) when expressing myself using the written, rather than the spoken, word. Most connections online these days inhabit a world that is partly synchronous, partly asynchronous.* People may respond straight away to something you put online, or they may respond hours, days, weeks, months, or even years later. Because online content is an implicit open-ended invitation to give your opinion and make comment, you can do so at your leisure. This promotes thinking and drafting when blogging, and iterating towards your actual opinion when using tools such as Twitter.

People who haven’t seen videos or listened to podcasts in which I feature are often surprised when they meet me in person. For a start, I’m often younger than they thought (one person commented that they assumed, because of my avatar, that I was ‘a fat, balding, forty-something’ – thanks!) People also don’t tend to realise I have an, admittedly diminishing, Northumbrian accent – replete with the rolling R’s. I’m all for personality and individuality, but sometimes these two factors – my age and my accent – have proved to be barriers in the physical world. Not so online. :-)

So an ode to the internet and the connections it makes. No, scratch that. An ode to the people who give up their time to connect to people. To those who make my life better by contributing, questioning and criticising my work and my thinking. It’s great to have and to be part of an active audience!

* There’s probably a word for this, but I don’t know what it is!

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