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Face-to-Face vs. Web-based Communications (excerpted from a listserv conversation with John Scherer - October 25, 2007)

John's Comment

With the explosion of the internet as a way of connecting, I wonder what needs we have that still can only (or best) be met in a face-to-face experience? The associations and organizations that deliver THAT, will stay alive and well.

My Reply


Your question is a tough one. I just looked at the guided tour for Mac's new OS, Leopard. With its new iChat module that allows one to not only link via webcam but to actually enter the other person's computer, including looking at the world thru their webcam, web-based meetings just became much more powerfully capable and attractive.

However, there are some things that one loses and cannot simulate in web-based meetings:

a. There is a bit of serendipity that emerges in face-to-face meetings that results from extraneous stimuli, both from the person and from the environment. For example, the person may make a gesture to another party that is under the table so is unseen by the webcam but you pick up. Or, in a discussion, some event may take place just outside the meeting area. A bird might fly. And, suddenly a conversation about market penetration becomes about avoiding customer flight. This might be conscious or unconscious. However, the environment shapes the conversation with cues that would be missed unless explicitly shared.

b. Relatedly, there is the casual and chance contacts that take place via breaks. I find about 10-20% of value in attending a conference happens in between sessions - over lunch, next to the coffee machine, even in the restroom.

c. Then there is the whole thing of saying and doing things in a new context. Related to "a." above, a new setting gives one a chance to approach something as if it were brand new. I think of your beautiful facility in Seattle. I recall the similar Japanese Gardens on Point Defiance. That tranquil setting makes agitated thoughts almost impossible and compels the deeper Self to emerge. One can get the visual thru a web cam, but one cannot get the lazy, buzzing dance of a bumble bee, the stir of a gentle breeze, etc.

d. There is something magical about breaking bread. Allon shared a picture of him sitting on a dirt floor sharing food with some clients - going native. I was impressed as was worth a thousand words as to what Global OD is. However, it also reminded me of the magic that can happen when people break bread.

e. Haptics. Haptics is a form of communication arising from stimulating the tactile senses of another. There are indirect haptics (sending flowers, sending letters, sending cards, etc.) However, the most powerful Haptics are direct haptics, hand shakes, feeling the breeze as someone walks by, pats on the back, etc.

f. Then there is looking someone in the eye. I have never seen a camera that can capture the depth of a person that one can see looking directly into someone's eyes.

g. Finally, there is the whole thing of proxemics, the effect of space on communications. There is something about being within someone's personal space that adds intimacy that changes the dynamics of communications.

So, on the whole, face to face meetings more completely and better brings the heart and soul into the conversation, I think. It helps the whole human to be present.

So, going back to your essential question, I think organizations that provide venues that allow or facilitate serendipitous interactions - the bumping of hearts and humanity, if you will - will be the most lasting and successful. That "bumping" is akin to nuclear reaction, (i.e. there is a chance for energy to emerge.)

Kind wishes


Drive On!