Anyone who has participated often in a work group
in business, education, or a volunteer organization has experienced
the hassles of scheduling meetings, as well as the sometimes frustrating
complexities in how small groups function. Extending the group
into cyberspace can eliminate the discontinuity due to scheduling
problems. In groups where people need to speak with each other
more often or maintain contact during vacation, holiday, or summer
breaks, an e-mail list can be the perfect solution. The "asynchronous"
communication of e-mail allows members to participate in the ongoing
virtual meeting at their own convenience and at their own pace.
Some of the unique features of asynchronous, typed-text communication
also may alter the interpersonal dynamics of the group, which
offers the opportunity to better understand and improve how the
A group as well may use "message board" formats to meet online.
Much of what I discuss in this article applies to that environment
also. However, because people are more familiar with e-mail
- and it's easier to set up an e-mail list than a message board
- I'll focus on that style of communicating.
Some Practical Issues in Setting
When creating an e-mail list, obviously it's important to make
sure that everyone has an e-mail account. Extending the group
into cyberspace when some people don't use e-mail is a bad idea.
It will encourage subgrouping, miscommunication, and perhaps
conflict. Doing so may even be a symptom of preexisting conflict
and an acting out of hostility against subgroups or individual
scapegoats. It's equally important to assess how much people
know about using e-mail in general and an e-mail list in particular.
Some people may say that they use e-mail "a lot" (since it's
fashionable) when in reality they may only be casual users who
barely understand the basics. As a result, setting up the list
may be a slow, sometimes frustrating process. On the positive
side, that process can serve as an opportunity for people to
familiarize themselves with e-mail lists before the actual online
It's a good idea to have a facilitator or "host" for the list
- someone who can set up the list and has some technical understanding
of how lists work, as well as some experience in the customs
and social dynamics of a list. Here are some guidelines for
- Select list software that's easy to use: for example
OneList (onelist.com) or "listserv"software that's available
on many university servers.
- Expect problems in gathering and entering the members'
e-mail addresses. It's very easy to make one small typing
error resulting in mail that will bounce back.
- If people have more than one e-mail address, enter all
of them into the list. This will maximize the possibility
of mail reaching them. Some people may want to receive mail
at home as well as at work. Others may not like this invasion
on their personal territory. Check with people first.
- To maximize communication within the group, set the "reply"
feature in the list software so that replies go to the whole
list, rather than privately to the person who sent the previous
message. This will build group cohesion, rather than encourage
private ("backchannel") communication and subgrouping.
- Once the list is set up, send a short "Hello/Role Call"
message to welcome everyone to the list. In that message,
ask everyone to reply, indicating that they have received
that first "hello" message. In turn, reply to their first
message so they know for sure their mail is getting through
(most list software distributes mail to everyone on the list,
including the sender - which is another verification that
one's mail is getting through). don't start any formal discussions
until you verify that everyone can send and is receiving mail.
You may have to prompt some people several times before they
reply to the "role call." It may even be necessary to prompt
some people via phone or face-to-face contact. If so, you
already have advanced notification that such people may not
be attending to their e-mail from the list. Not a good start
for the e-mail group.
Once it is clear everyone is on board, send an introductory
message containing some suggestions about how to use the list.
don't assume that everyone understands the technical and social
aspects of an e-mail group. Some experienced onliners may see
the suggestions as old hat, but it's a good idea to make sure
everyone is starting on the same page. That introductory message
might look something like this:
I think we're all on board now, so welcome to the list! I'm looking forward to our
discussions and hope this ongoing virtual meeting will be enjoyable and productive
for all of us. Here are some suggestions that I think could make this experience
run more smoothly for us:
- Remember that hitting "reply" will send your message to the whole group. So avoid
the embarrassing mistake of hitting "reply" on a person's e-mail to the group and
thinking that your message is a private communication to that person!
- Reply to people, even if it's just a simple one-liner or an "I agree." On big
lists with lots of traffic, some people get annoyed by such short messages,
but it's good for our purposes. When people post to a list and don't get ANY
reply, they tend to be reluctant about posting again. No one likes to be ignored!
- Let us know when you're going to be away from your computer. That way we will
know why you seem to be "quiet."
- Because there are no face-to-face cues (voice, body language), it's easy to
misread the tone and therefore the meaning of someone's message. So when
in doubt, ask for clarification.
- Remember that people use e-mail at different paces and that servers on the
internet may deliver some mail late. Expect some delays in people responding
and messages that arrive out of order.
If you have any questions about how this list works - or other ideas and
suggestions - why don't we discuss that now on the list.
E-mail can be a fascinating, subtle tool for communicating
- different, in many respects, from talking. Some even consider
it an art form. It might be a good idea to recommend some reading
about e-mail to the group. For example, here's an article about
and relationships that might be useful.
Changes in Group Boundaries and Dynamics
There are many practical uses for the list. On the most basic
level, it can be used for announcements, scheduling in-person
meetings, and generally serve as a substitute for hardcopy memos.
However, limiting the list to this function alone - a kind of
"memo mentality" - falls short of utilizing its full potential.
Memo mentality ignores how the list can be a group MEETING with
many other possible applications. It can be used in a collaborative
effort to edit, revise, and approve a document. The group can
prepare for and afterwards discuss an in-person meeting. Under
ideal conditions, the list can be an effective alternative for
in-person meetings by encouraging open discussions of issues
and decision-making. To do this efficiently, some structure
will be necessary. Adapting Roberts Rules is one
possibility. I' ve also proposed a fairly simple discussion/voting
procedure for e-mail lists.
Extending the group into cyberspace can have a double-edged
effect. On the one hand, the exchange of messages via the list
may draw out or highlight the preexisting interpersonal dynamics
of the group. Typed text has a way of making things stand out
in bold relief, sometimes "demonstrating the obvious" in a very
eye-catching, rubbing-one's-nose-in-it fashion. On the other
hand, an online meeting also may alter the dynamics of the group
because it entails a change in the boundaries of time, place,
and communication style. For example:
Pacing: Because e-mail
involves asynchronous communication, people can speak to the group
whenever they want and as frequently as they want. Avid e-mail
users may have more input into the discussion than casual or inexperienced
users, possibly altering in a dramatic way the usual in-person
pattern of participation.
Writing, not talking: Typed-text
usually forces people to be more concise and to-the-point,
resulting in a filtering out of extraneous conversation that
typically pads a face-to-face meeting. The e-mail discussion
may feel more efficient to some people, or blunt to others.
Some members may be frustrated by the tedium of having to
type everything they want to say, feeling a f2f dialogue is
easier and more thorough. Because e-mail involves writing
and not speaking, those with superior writing skills will
have a communicative advantage. They may not be the same people
who have the verbal advantage in an in-person meeting. Those
who are ignored, interrupted, or talked-over during a f2f
meeting may have a stronger voice in cyberspace. Those who
dominate an in-person meeting may lose some of their influence
Disinhibition: People can'
t see you or hear your voice in an e-mail discussion, which
results in a "masking" effect and psychological disinhibition.
People may be more willing to express thoughts and feelings
that they otherwise would keep to themselves during an in-person
meeting. As a result, new ideas may pop up. Surprising opinions
are expressed. Conflicts that were previously warded off now
rise to the surface. In an ideal situation, this disinhibiting
effect can jostle a group into new and productive lines of
discussion. In unfortunate circumstances, the uncovering of
hidden problems may destabilize the group, reducing it's ability
to communicate and work effectively. In-person meetings will
be needed to remedy that situation.
Permanent Record: Any member
easily can save all the group's message to an archive. Everything
that was said online can be preserved indefinitely. This permanent
record can come in handy in reviewing who said what and when,
how decisions were made, and for attaining a bird' s eye view
of the course of a discussion. Without visual and verbal cues,
it's sometimes easy to misread the meaning or emotion within
someone's message - particularly if you happen to be having
a bad day. Going back to read a message at a later date can
help you see it in a fresh light, with a new mental set and
a bit more objectivity.
Resistance to Being Online
Because e-mail meetings are very different than being in-person,
some people may show resistance to participating. That resistance
may manifest itself in several ways: infrequent messages sent
to the list; brief or unsubstantial discussions; frequent pleas
for in-person meetings; habitual private (backchannel) e-mail
or private in-person discussions (rather than bringing issues
to the list); critical comments about using a list; and other
assorted direct and indirect expressions of hostility. In rare
circumstances some people may staunchly refuse to participate,
which can create considerable uneasiness and distrust in the
group. There are a variety of possible reasons for resistance.
Some change easily, others don' t:
- Being unfamiliar or uncomfortable
with using computers, e-mail, or e-mail lists. Some people
may need time and experience to adapt; a little bit of training
could be helpful. Chronic "memo mentality" may be a stubborn mental
set in its own right, or a symptom of some of the other reasons
for resistance listed below.
- A fear of displaying one's writing
abilities. It's very helpful to establish a norm where
all writing styles are accepted - including being casual and
making errors in spelling and grammar. Schoolmarm standards
about "correct" writing will not be productive.
- A fear of "going public." People
may worry that someone might save their messages and later
use them as "ammunition" against them. This anxiety may coincide
with the worry that people outside the group may have access
to the list or may be given e-mail by a group member. Such
concerns may be a low-level symptom of preexisting distrust
within the group. From the get-go, emphasizing the importance
of list confidentiality can help alleviate some of these worries.
- Angry withdrawal, indifference.
These barriers are most likely a symptom of preexisting interpersonal
dynamics within the group. The disinhibiting effect of e-mail
communication may help people discuss and resolve these issues,
but don't count on it.
There's no doubt in my mind that an e-mail list can enhance
a work group. The determining factor is the group's motivation
to use the list effectively. Strong resistance may indicate
that the group is not ready to be extended into cyberspace.
Integrating Online with Offline
Because an e-mail list is a very different style of communicating
than being in-person, the two channels may become disconnected
or "dissociated" from each other. What is said in one domain
may not be said in the other. In particular, the disinhibiting
effect of e-mail could lead people to state things that they
refrain from bringing to the in-person meeting. Sometimes the
list discussions may even evolve into a kind of "subconscious"
voicing of issues that are actively avoided in-person. It is
possible to work through these issues on the list, allowing
the beneficial effects to seep into the f2f meetings without
openly discussing them in those meetings. However, the best
approach is to head off the dissociation before it becomes too
deeply embedded. Make an attempt to discuss important issues
in both domains - and, if possible, try to understand the psychological
barriers that might prevent people from doing that. Understanding
those barriers will lead to valuable insights into the interpersonal
dynamics of the group.
Under ideal conditions, in-person and e-mail discussions will
complement and enrich each other. The group will come to recognize
the pros and cons of each realm. It will learn to maximize the
advantages and minimize the disadvantages of each. The degree
of success is the degree to which the group can effectively integrate the
two. When the group moves fluidly from one realm to the other,
when both realms give expression to all important group functions
- brainstorming, decision-making, problem-solving, socializing,
conflict resolution - then the group has fully succeeded in extending
itself into cyberspace.