The Dynamics of Online Culture and Community

Learning to communicate primarily via written text can be a challenge for volunteer and manager alike. Sometimes, a volunteer manager or group leader will have to interpret people's communication and assist them to be clear and effective online.

You will experience a wide variety of communicators as you work with online volunteers:

  • Some write e-mails exactly as they talk, using punctuation and "smileys" to show emotion or expression.
  • Some write formally.
  • Some write short and to the point.
  • Some write often.
  • Some interpret silence as approval, others as disapproval.
  • Some will e-mail you and then call, as they aren't absolutely certain of technology and need the approving voice.
  • On online discussion groups, some will post frequently, some will post occassionally, and many will just "lurk" and never post at all, or send questions or comments directly to you instead.
  • Some may misinterpret intent or tone based only on the way the e-mail is written, not what the e-mail actually says. This is true particularly of those who are new to the Internet or don't use e-mail frequently.
    (For instance, one-word answers to questions may be interpreted as "snippy." Other people interpret questions themselves as "attacks", or signs that the person asking the questions does not like them or trust them, .
  • Some write e-mails littered with punctuation, spelling and sentence structure errors, but are very articulate on the telephone and quite respected in their professional field.
  • Some are not completely aware of all of the functions on their e-mail software (setting line length, type size, having a signature, setting the default to reply to the sender rather than everyone, etc.)
  • Some "documenters" and some "snippers": Some feel it is necessary to keep the full reply even if it is the 6th message passed. Others like to respond in a concise manner, so much so that it can be hard to figure out what they are responding or referring to (this may not be a culture difference, as much as a difference in e-mail systems or the person's technical know how).

Advice/Reviews from Individuals in Virtual Volunteering 

As is noted in Working Together Online, an excellent publication by Maureen James and Liz Rykert, in association with Web Networks,, "Drawing out the human tone and feelings from online text can be tricky." Even silence can be misinterpreted. "One reason that silence occurs is that the person posting the message hasn't been clear about what kind of response they are looking for."

Working Together Online offers what the Virtual Volunteering Project feels is the some of the best advice regarding communicating with volunteers online:

    "Never make assumptions about what you are reading. Learn to move slowly in what feels like a very fast medium."

Brenda Ruth of the Boulder Community Network has a lot of experience working with online volunteers, and says:

    "There are very distinct personalities behind the words and it is easy to get in the mode of seeing e-mail as a long to-do list, rather than human interaction.

    "E-mail opens up lots of opportunities for people who aren't comfortable in face-to-face communication. I find that people are OK about saying, 'no,' more so than if I called or was in person. Falling back on my communication studies in college, this makes sense because so many 'yes' answers are prompted by how the request was made in voice tone, physical proximity and inclusion of touch.

    "The most successful projects are when I have declared expectations of what I expect when, and the volunteer can agree to it, or not and turn it down, or modify. I also find this when working with organizations, that people who aren't direct in physical meetings are so by e-mail.

    "There is also the documentation factor that is available on e-mail and not in physical contact. Knowing that people can relook at what is said, or save what was said I think changes interaction online. One can't fall back on the classic, 'I called and left several messages last week...' You have proof that you did or did not send or receive them. For me personally, I will double check facts before I write something I am only a little bit familiar with. Whereas in speaking I wouldn't hesitate to make an educated guess."

Penny Leisch of the Arizona Pioneers' Home Volunteers Association offers this advice for communicating with volunteers via e-mail:

    "People interpret written words based on their experiences, culture and education. Some people are very literal, good readers and very good listeners. Other people need the same information repeated several times before they assimilate everything. These people need to be led through tasks step-by-step.

    "Online volunteers may come from a variety of cultures and my everyday terms can mean something totally different to them. For instance, in Australia a 'downy' is what we call a comforter or bed cover in the US. I can usually tell when there is a cultural difference by the physical structure of the written grammar. I've learned to watch for these types of indicators.

    "Some people probably remember doing an exercise in school where one person stands at a chalkboard and the class gives verbal instructions to guide them through drawing a shape. The person at the chalkboard has not seen the shape. Usually, the result is a very different from the intended shape.

    "The most important instructional writing guideline is 'don't assume'. Most of us tend to forget to start at the beginning and include absolutely every step. A good experiment is to try writing yourself instructions for a task. Then, follow your instructions exactly as they are written.

    "My policy is to write e-mail in the same manner I would write a recipe or instruction manual. I try to be clear, concise and present my thoughts step by step. The language I use is simple. I avoid technical terms and e-mail abbreviations and sniglets, unless I've worked with the person enough to know they will understand my references. "

Learning to communicate with volunteers primarily via e-mail is an ongoing process, and electronic communication isn't for everyone. John Bergeron of the Glaucoma Research Foundation adds:

    "It's very hard to teach good e-mail etiquette. Those who use e-mail frequently tend to be much easier to communicate with online. (In my experience,) sometimes it's necessary to tolerate poor e-mail skills and supplement them with phone conversations. I have a lot to learn still about making effective online partnerships!

Join an Online Discussion Group

A great way to learn about the nuances of communicating with people online is to become a part of an online discussion group.

Start by joining an online group specifically for volunteer managers. If you work with young people, you might consider joining a discussion group of a TV show that's popular with teens, and observe how the youth interact with each other. You can also join groups that interest you personally -- for a particular hobby, your favorite author, a sports team you follow, even a political issue.

As you observe (or "lurk") on these groups, notice the variety of ways people relate to each other via written communications, the differences in communication styles among people of different age groups, how someone may get upset about a message that they interpreted as "hostile" but that looked quite benign to you, and so forth. Look for ways that people make their e-mails as appealing as possible -- the way the introduce a topic, the way the sign their e-mails, the way they respond to others, and so forth. If you feel comfortable, you might want to post a message yourself and actively participate.

Google Groups is the foremost resource for current USENET newsgroups, as well as a repository for the USENET archives formerly held by DejaNews.  
Thanks to Brenda Ruth of Boulder Community Network, Penny Leisch of Arizona Pioneers' Home Volunteers Association, John Bergeron of Glaucoma Research Foundation and Susan Ellis of Energize, Inc. for their input into this document.Complete information about the VV Project Affiliates and how they involve online volunteers is available on our web site.

Orienting and evaluating new online volunteers via e-mail and the Web and Managing volunteers virtually are also discussed in detail on our site.

A related page is our suggestions for accommodations for online volunteers who have learning disabilities or emotional and anxiety disorders. Most of these suggestions are fundamental to the successful management of ANY volunteer via e-mail and the Web. This information also will help you address the various learning styles and working styles of online volunteers. Part of our suggestions for Working via the Internet with volunteers who have disabilities.

Another related page is making e-mail communications more effective, a helpful article written by Susan Ellis, based on her own experience as part of a board of directors that communicated primarily online.

You may also want to refer your online volunteers (and all staff, actually) to these online Netiquette guides:

Other Resources

Online Community Toolkit
A great set of tools regarding online communities, from what they are to how to facilitate them to sample online community guidelines, rules and member agreements. This collection of helpful articles are by Full Circle Associates Nancy White, Sue Boettcher and Heather Duggan.

WELL Community Guidelines
an excellent example of rules for online communities and moderators. Whole Earth 'Lectronic Link (WELL) began in 1985, starting with a dialog between the writers and readers of the Whole Earth Review. The WELL is now a "cluster of electronic villages on the Internet." There are more than 260 Conferences open to WELL members, covering subject categories such as "Parenting," "The Future," or "Pop Culture." WELL members have founded advocacy organizations like the Electronic Frontier Foundation, and their experiences have been used to explore online culture and community (such as in Howard Rheingold's The Virtual Community.

Using Real-Time Communications with Volunteers
A growing number of organizations are using real-time communications -- usually called "chats" -- to hold online meetings with volunteers, or to allow volunteers to interact with staff, clients, or each other. This resource provides more information on chats -- what they are, how agencies are using them to interact with volunteers, tips to encourage and maintain participation in chats, and where to find chat software. This resource was developed by the Virtual Volunteering Project.

Internet discussion groups for volunteers
Many agencies have created e-mail-based discussion groups or newsgroups for their volunteers. These asynchronous online tools allow agencies to easily make announcements to volunteers, and sometimes also allow volunteers to interact with each other, get suggestions and feedback, and ask questions. They can also serve as a written record of participation, concerns, trends and issues for volunteers. Unlike chats, volunteers can participate whenever they wish, and they don't need special software to do so. This resource was developed by the Virtual Volunteering Project.

Connecting Humans: Essays on the Positive Side of Online Culture
Information, essays and examples that illustrate how cyberspace is bringing us together, not closing us off to each other. The kickoff essay is how Fan-Based Online Groups Use the Internet to Make a Difference. Includes examples of such groups, with comments from members regarding their online philanthropic activities and what makes them successful. This resource was developed by the Virtual Volunteering Project.