Mediating the power dynamics of online spaces

""As we mature in our use of social networking and online spaces – could it be that we’re losing touch with why we use them?

In his book “Disrupting Class”, Clayton Christensen says that disruptive innovation – such as social media tools – work best when the innovation is competing against non-consumption (that is, it’s better than nothing”.

Do your professional social networking spaces work as an innovation for group discussions that cannot occur face to face? If so, should not the same rules apply to these spaces as in face-to-face spaces?

When you set up an online space in the name of an organisation, consider the norms you’d establish if you were hosting people in a discussion area in your organisation. Hopefully these norms would include:

  • establishing behavioural expectations both formally and by your own actions
  • ensuring power dynamics are flattened
  • ensuring everyone understands the purpose of the space
  • recognising that different cultural, gender and age lenses will result in different responses and reactions
  • neutrally mediating disputes by taking them out of the shared space to be resolved privately
  • addressing issues of discomfort or disagreement appropriately and gracefully

However, in an online space where you are introducing the images, videos, articles and news items for discussion – the power dynamic defaults to one where the editor (you) is perceived as having the most power and, unless carefully moderated, the majority rules.

Because of the asynchronous nature of the text-based discussions that occur – there is a tendency to think of them as publishing spaces rather than a tool to facilitate online discussion.

Therefore, if one or a few people disagree with something you’ve published online, the majority can quickly over-ride those few with an avalanche of likes and dissenting comments – leading to a spiral of silence and feelings of isolation.

In a face-to-face setting, most experienced group facilitators would ensure that a lone dissenter felt supported and that their opinion was of value. If they picked up that the person was shy, the facilitator could take them aside during the break or after the session and draw out more about why that person was uncomfortable. In the main discussion, the facilitator would ensure that everyone accepted that all opinions expressed within group norms had equal value.

So, as we gain maturity in the use of online spaces and other technologies for discussion, let’s ensure we think about why we’re using these tools. We can extend our ability to reach out and help us to support and educate people in new ways – and use traditional group discussion facilitation to ensure that everyone feels they are a valued part of the community.