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Staying "In-the-moment"
in Asynchronous Online Interaction
Establishing "Experience" Context

Nancy White, Full Circle Associates, with wonderful suggestions and contributions from Mary Kuris, Sandor Schuman, Bill Harris, Bernie Slepkov, Susan Earley, James Dobbins via our Quicktopic space.
Updated December, 2001

Online interaction can be tough. For some of us it is challenging to engage in sustained, thoughtful interchanges in asynchronous (different time) online interactions. Between the lag time from response to response and the flat textual environment, the spark can fade. Some of us get lost wading through pages of text. Others read and then go offline to reflect, only to come back and feel it is "too late" to add a comment.

This is especially an issue for those of us with learning styles that favor visual and kinesthetic experiences -- experiences not supported by text. We may "feel" things that are hard to share. Between us, we may be having very different experiences and never know it. We lose that experience of "staying in the moment" felt in a face-to-face setting. This can occur in other communications media. In telephone conference calls, for example, some people really connect in the aural experience, while others, without a visual focal point, find themselves with wandering attention. Ever check your email while on a conference call? In a face-to-face setting with a highly structured classroom set up, some people feel physically constricted and can only regain focus by getting up and moving around. Each medium has its limitations.

We know online interaction can be somewhat sensory limited. We can consider ways to increase the engagement by making it more multi-sensory from the user side. This creates another layer of "experience" or experience context."

Experience Context

We often talk of content-centric context or how our interactions focus around the topics we are discussing. For example, it might be safe to say that most of an online group knows what they are talking about. The topic is "next week's meeting" or "Beatles music." But what is the "experience" context? Experience context addresses issues of attention, mood, responsiveness. "Are you listening to me?" "Am I late to this conversation?" "Is now a good time to speak up?" Since we cannot convey these through body language, we have to make them explicit, both in our preparation of online interaction, and how we convey or express our experience to the rest of the group.

The experience context influences the group dynamic, just as it does offline. Think back to a meeting where you could feel the engagement, or the squirming in chairs. Online, we have to ask explicitly how my experience different from yours? How do I communicate this? What implications does it have for our interaction? What if we experienced our online text interactions in a multi-sensory context -- even if that means "creating" the experience context ourselves?

Establishing Personal Experience Context

The first place we start is building our own personal experience context. Here are some simple approaches to creating a more multi-modal experience and hopefully a stronger connection and reconnection in a text-based interaction:

  • When coming into an online thread that wants your attention, in all senses, start by taking a deep breath. Slow down. Pause for a beat.
  • Put aside multitasking. Don't let an email alert distract you. Close the door. Give it the attention you would give an individual sitting in front of you.
  • If your short-term memory is, well, short, like mine, read back over some number of previous postings. Reestablish context. Take your fingers, poised for a quick response, off the keyboard. Do you remember what this thread is about? Is it still on topic or has it "drifted?" Why?
  • As you re-read, try and recapture your initial response. Were you excited? Bored? Irritated? Intrigued? Neutral? Compare it to your current response. Has something changed in your response? Why?
  • Now add in the people. Refocus on the names of the people posting in the "thread" or conversation. What do you know about them? Have you clicked on their bios to find out more about them? Have you seen a picture of any of them? Do you know some of them better than others? How does this affect your reading of their words?
  • What tone might the writers be using if they were speaking their words out loud? How does this affect your reading of their words? Try different tones.
  • If your learning preferences tend towards the visual or kinesthetic, imagine this group of people sitting in a circle, or around a meal-table. Hear the sound of their breathing. Smell someone's perfume. Hear glasses clinking. Look at their facial expressions in your mind's eye. What do you see?
  • Now return to the words. Has the context changed? Is your connection reestablished? If so, then you have learned that for you to fully participate in a text-based world, you can use more than text, and recall the other senses that record human interaction.
  • If you are having a very strong reaction and you are not sure if it really connected to the interaction, take a break. Walk outside. Let your thoughts sit and percolate. Then return to the keyboard.
Group Experience Context
One you have explored your personal context, you want to start bridging this to the group's experience context. As in a face-to-face group, it can be easier to share context when we know each other a bit. Think about your online group experiences, especially if they are work focused. What time and attention do you pay to the group's socialization processes? What do you know about the members that gives you some context of their responses, styles and online interaction rhythms? Find explicit ways to explore these aspects of the group. Have separate social interaction spaces ("online cafes") and utilize the profile or bio features of the software you are using. Then, within the actual interactions, consider ways to surface the experience context.
  • Use short, integrated polls to ask for "how do you feel about this or that" feedback.
  • Use instant messaging when you see other's online to get a sense of their mood or state of mind.
  • Use expressive language that makes explicit or asks after others sense of a conversation.
  • Use emoticons to increase the "body language" of your written communications.
  • Schedule periodic group conference calls or face-to-face events to connect the group in a different context and modality.
  • Encourage "pauses" between major interactions which allow time for recap and reflection. Encourage people to post their debrief experiences. Compare and note the range.

These are just a few ideas. There are many more, some yet to be discovered. The next time you go online to interact with others, be there in all your senses. Create a fuller context that includes experience. And see if the outcome is changed.

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