Disconnect of expectations between physical and virtual participants

2011 January 10
by Karen

I’ve been following the kerfuffle on Twitter about streaming the LITA Board meeting this weekend and thinking a bit about how it represents of the disconnect between physical and virtual participants and communities. In nearly all of my LITA and ALA interactions, virtual participants have almost always been a secondary concern or worse yet and after thought to the event going on. As if members who want to participate virtually are an oddity or outside the norm. As a result, events don’t get planned with virtual and in person participation as EXPECTED from the start. This results in things like the LITA board meeting where the stream was shut down due to the fact LITA didn’t have permission to broadcast the presentation of a consultant who was coming in to the meeting to provide information.

LITA and ALA aren’t the only ones who fall into the trap of forgetting virtual members/participants. I work remotely for OCLC and I can’t tell you how many times people have assumed my physical presence at meetings and created lots of problems as a result. Everyone in every organization who wants to truly engage their community and members needs to ASSUME that there will be people who will need or want to participate both physically and virtual. Otherwise, either physical or virtual participants will be in the backseat.

How can physical participants end up in the backseat? code4lib as a community/organization/whatever is a great example of this. The vast majority of the code4lib community interaction is virtual, whether in IRC channel, listserv or website. As a result, there are certain assumptions that get made when this community comes together physically; typically the annual code4lib conference. Insider info and an understanding of the microculture, that you might not have if you haven’t been a virtual code4lib participant. code4lib is not the norm though. In most library organizations, virtual participants take the backseat, because the organization fail to expect them and engage with them in a consistent fashion. This is frustrating for these participants and only succeeds in alienating them.

Of course, virtual participants will need engage in the discussion in different ways from physical participants and the experiences of the two might not be equivalent. Regardless, there has to be clear ways for each type of participants to interact and organizations should endeavor to make sure the experience is as equivalent as possible. If that means creating standards and practices then so be it. It is clear that organizations have to work at this and PLAN for it, because in general we aren’t digital natives and too many of us assume that interactions will be traditional physical ones. It won’t always be this way, nor IMHO should it. Many organizations and groups operate in a primarily distributed and virtual fashion as a necessity. Two examples of this are the Drupal and Koha user communities. In both these cases, primarily physical interactions are unfeasible because of the global nature of the community. Being a global organization, OCLC doesn’t have the luxury of physical meetings either and the organization gets increasing better at having virtual interactions.

With library budgets shrinking and travel costs increasing, organizations like LITA need to face the reality that virtual participation is likely to become a norm rather than an oddity and shift their culture, practices and expectations to accommodate this model. Failing to do this will lead to members investing time in communities that are capable of meeting their expectations as virtual participants.

5 Responses leave one →
  1. 2011 January 12
    Robin permalink

    Great post. I also responded to it in the comments at Wandering Eyre.

    I really like your point about planning and that was my main issue with the LITA ruckus. You have to plan for such a meeting and I really, really don’t recommend a large national event like Midwinter as your first time doing streaming. What steps do you think organizations should take to plan for a meeting of virtual and physical participants?

  2. 2011 January 13
    sally sue permalink

    It’s my understanding from reading this
    that the virtual members weren’t forgotten about, but rather only one board member knew the streaming was taking place. More specifically, the board member set up a webcam without the knowledge or permission of anyone else in the room. Once this came to light, a discussion took place and it was voted to turn the webcast off.

  3. 2011 January 13
    Aimee B-E permalink

    Agreed, this is a great post. This is especially relevant in this economy where virtual attendance is often the only option. One of the organization I am working with is thinking about virtual meetings and events and I will be sure to keep in mind that we need to include planning for virtual attendees from the beginning.

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