Collaboration, Community, and Communication

This is the skeleton of my current thoughts exploring the collaboration processes by which we translate thought into societal action, and opportunities to improve these processes via technology. It is but a moment in time that captures my current thinking on the subject; subject to significant change and constantly evolving, but shared in some small part with you today.

Community and communication share a root (com – together). When we think of collaboration, it is a combination of these two words. Collaboration is a factor of communities communicating.

Collaboration = Community + Communication

Not a definition, but a way to frame the components of co-creating or co-laboring together.

To facilitate effective collaboration, we must consider the many underlying components that drive communication and community. A lot of research has been established about the community elements of online spaces[1], but less has been done about the communication side. So, at least to start, I’m going to use this document to propose a shared language about how we communicate, and we’ll get into the community and collaborative elements down the road.

How Communication Happens

Communication begins in the brain, and not just in the cerebrum. When we think of the act of communicating, we begin first with the emotional responses and physical sensations that drive our feelings. These feelings are a response to the physical stimuli of the world, and functions of each individual experience that we’ve had in the world. Often, these feelings go hand-in-hand with thoughts, though I believe that for most purposes, we should differentiate between a feeling and a thought.

Identifying Internal Ideas

Feelings and thoughts drive each other, but at some point, these internal elements become something that we want to express. There is an “internal to external” conversion of the thing that we have decided we want to express, when we are consciously or unconsciously evaluating our environment and making decisions about how we want to get something out of our brain and into the world around us. When you think of communication in that regard, it is intimate and very vulnerable, but many of our online systems and social media don’t treat it as such. But I digress.

The process of converting internal thoughts into external, sharable things is unique between individuals. At any given time, we are also considering the medium through which we are expressing our thoughts – if you’ll excuse me, I’ll get meta here for a moment and share some of the original ways that these thoughts ended up being converted from electrical pulses in my brain to logical shapes and patterns that are being decoded by ­your eyes.

The internal to external conversion

So, we’ve established that there’s a process that occurs when we identify the form in which we want to share these internal ideas, and that the process can vary a lot. For the communication to occur, the medium needs to be able to accurately reflect the thoughts and ideas that we are trying to convey. This is where different mediums have benefits and tradeoffs. The higher context that we can provide, the greater the likelihood that someone else will be able to understand us.

Here’s a simple example. Let’s say we’re sharing stories about our childhoods. If I simply tell you: “We had flower beds that blossomed in the spring”, the image that comes to your mind will be of a flower bed, maybe in front of a generic house. You will bring your context to thought that I shared, but it will be different from mine. If I tell my younger sister that sentence, she has the same shared context that I do, since we both experienced the original context. Her context in this moment is shaped by her environment and experience, which mirror my own, and our minds end up in the same place quickly.

Now, I can add context. I can share more details via this written text: I grew up on a farm – 10 acres of land at the base of the Appalachian Mountains in Virginia – in a brick house at the top of a small hill. Our flower beds were massive, but the ones that I’m thinking about were flower beds with bushes that lined the front porch. You get a better idea of the flower beds that I’m communicating to you. Or, I can choose a different medium altogether, and just give you a photo of my house.

In this particular example, it doesn’t really matter whether or not the conversion process from my internal thoughts to an external observer is highly accurate, but if we were to communicate ideas about healthcare or public policy or translating a product need into a design and subsequent new feature, the translation needs to be more accurate and come from a larger network of internal ideas and opinions (that’s the collaboration part!). But hopefully this simplified example shows the power of different mediums in communicating ideas and thoughts from one person to another.

A Brief Note on Communication Mediums

The medium through which we express the thoughts and feelings that we have vary by age group, background, culture, personal ability and interest, and availability of different tools. Historically, we’ve considered language to be the primary vector by which communication happens, though that particular type of transfer of information can occur through different forms, both real-time and asynchronous. We’ll get into more detail about the temporal elements of communication in a later post. Language is potentially considered an ‘explicit’ transfer of a thought because language is often considered to be a more accurate form of communication than other implicit types that are more ambiguous in nature (for example, art, dance, music, and movement). In practice, all forms of communication still leave open a wide range of interpretations and it is critical to consider the context alongside any medium. As we’ve seen above, mediums that provide a high level of supporting context can better convey information between parties. 

Opportunities for Communication and the need for audience

Once we have a thought or feeling that we want to express, and we’ve identified a translation mechanic via a medium through which we are able and desire[2] to use to do so,  we are then able to identify the opportunity to share that with an audience (while audience may have a specific meaning that implies a large group, I am instead choosing to refer to an audience from the perspective of the action, rather than as a noun – you essentially need someone to receive your expressed thoughts).

We can distill down the opportunity element of communication as:

Opportunity of expression = Audience + Venue

We’ll explore characteristics of opportunities in more depth later on in this series

An opportunity to express something in a particular form requires an audience, which can be large or small, synchronous or asynchronous, static or dynamic. We won’t go into too many specific details as to the characteristics of audience makeup here, but I talk a little bit about it in a blog post from last August, and can expand on it more in the future.

We must also determine the purpose of the idea, and our relationship to the audience. Are we anticipating that we will receive information from the audience, such that the ideas we are sharing are able to be dynamic[3], and shaped in new ways? One might argue that the difference between communication and collaboration is in the purpose of shifting and changing ideas to come to a shared vision, and we’ll operate under that understanding as we move into the collaborative element later on in this document.

Basically, we need to recognize that in order for a thought or feeling to be expressed, we must have someone, somewhere, at some point in time, who is able to receive the information that we’re putting out there. But where is “there”? That takes me to the next part of the equation – the venue.

A venue in which to share ideas and communicate can be as casual as a living room or a kitchen table, or as formal and purpose-built as a classroom or an auditorium. Venues can be large, or small, private, or public, and have the power to shape the way that ideas are brought forth and interpreted. Increasingly, we as a global society have turned to online venues and social media as our gathering spaces for sharing ideas, and this has largely been the place (no pun intended) that virtual reality applications have aimed to replicate.

With all of these considerations in mind for an individual communicative process, in future explorations we’ll turn (briefly) to the social elements of communication across cultures and within communities.

[1] For an in-depth overview of research in social spaces, I strongly recommend reading through as a primer, and then further exploring Outlaw’s research in each of these topics.

[2] We should definitely spend some time in the future exploring the differences between “ability” to use a medium and “desire” to use a medium. For example, is a blog post really the best medium to convey this message? Would a video and slides and graphics be more effective? In practice, there is often a blend of what we are able to do well, and what is expected, given the audience. It is therefore critical that we recognize that this is not a linear flow, and that one part of the communication process guides other elements, almost like a dance between the different components.

[3] We don’t have a great way to share dynamic elements online. Wikis are one form of doing that, but the added overhead of managing a wiki is a consideration to keep in mind