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Back to Chapters for AOC

Role of Face-to-Face Interaction in Building and Complementing Online Community

Primary Author: Kaliya Hamlin


I got into a technical community looking at how to innovate an identity layer of the web. This community however was not built ‘online’ it began from conversations with others who shared similar interests - we only saw each other once in a while to keep the conversation going we began with a mailing list, many of us started blogging and then we had a wiki to support developing our shared vocabulary.

Our community is alive and active online and much of this book talks about this medium for community. This chapter is about our face to face gatherings - how they work and their design patterns and how they complement our online life. I co-produce and facilitate our major conference The Internet Identity Workshop that happens twice a year. They have been particularly powerful for the community and been a key factor in our success. I have extended this work and now design, facilitate and produce events for a range of different technical communities.

An obvious starting question why bother getting together face to face? Well, there are lots of reasons particularly that we are biological animals with millions of years of evolution geared to help us succeed in social face to face group interaction. Supporting face to face gatherings amongst online community members improves the quality of interaction online and can speed innovative and collaborative efforts. What do you do when you get together to really take advantage of the rare opportunity that face time presents? Two formats that I see again and again BOF’s and Traditional conferences are well understood but fail to take advantage the opportunity that face to face meetings provide. I will touch on both but go into detail about alternatives that offer more for community development. I will highlight some design patterns that work well for these gatherings.

Why get together?

Another page about face to face and its power

For these reasons face to face meetings change the quality of the conversation that you community can have online. This does not mean that everyone has to find a way to be in one place at one time. It does mean that facilitating opportunities where appropriate to meet up and connect helps create a deeper understanding. These meetings can be small around other events or they can be people from a world wide community getting together for several days.

Text is an format that seems simple - it just says what it says right? but can emotions can become amplified in that form. The reason for this is that it lacks tonal and visual context - hence emotional expressions can be over interpreted. This problem is added to by the fact that as we respond to text with matching emotional intensity - hence the cycle of escalating emotions in written form that can lead to flame wars. (reference Chris Allen, Life with Alacrity Flames:Emotional Amplification of Text Feb 13, 2006).

It is very hard to read in the emotions that people are expressing. The ability to read emotions and subtle meaning and tone is increases after you have met people face to face. It was startling to me how different I came to read the text of people in community mailings lists (my main technical community is working on user-centric identity) how differently I read the words people wrote on the Identity Gang list before and after. IT was like when I read the text after I met them I could ‘hear them’ say the text I was reading - get a sense from having met them what they meant and intended.

The disagreeable guy who was always contradicting folks on the mailing list. After you met him and talked with him and understand him better - both is personal style and maybe event some ‘issue’ going on in the back ground of their life that helps explain their tone or attitude things can go more smoothly.

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