I recently published an article called:
Unintended Consequences: The Negative Impact of Email Use on Participation and Collective Identity in Two “Horizontal” Social Movement Groups. (The European Political Science Review doi:10.1017/S1755773914000423)
People have asked me to write something about what the practical implications of this are for groups, especially virtual collectives, trying to work horizontally. I have written this short piece below. However, I do recommend you read the article to understand how and why these processes happen despite our best intentions! If you cannot access a copy, just get in touch and I will send one along.
Email etiquette for virtual collectives:
Research shows that email communication even in “horizontal groups” is often very skewed, reproduces informal power imbalances, is gendered, and can be used to dominate discussions and distort decision making processes (Cronauer 2004, Kavada 2007, 2009, 2010, Flesher Fominaya 2015).
Email has certain advantages, but also reproduces certain pathologies. Those people who are always online or always the first to respond to other’s emails can dominate discussion, whereas many factors inhibit participation, including lack of confidence, deferring to another’s perceived expertise or authority (often this is gendered, with males both presenting themselves and being perceived as the voice of authority), not feeling invested in the discussion, not having time to read through a long string of emails, etc.
On most email lists, a few people participate a lot, the rest very little. Men tend to intervene up to 3 or 4 more times than women. Another common pattern is binary communication where people will only reply to certain individuals and to each other but not to others on the list. All of this varies of course depending on the kind of list and group.
In addition, because of time/space rupture in communication, those who get in first can shape a discussion away from its original focus, and those who come in later may find that either they only respond to the last formulation of the issue, or that the discussion feels like “consensus” has already been reached, even if in reality only a few people have taken part.
Email can also be very useful, but should not be the sole means of communication, which is why other tools like Titan Pads can help create spaces where anyone can come in to a discussion and see how it has progressed and get the whole picture. Titan pads are only good for specific tasks though and email is still great for short communications and coordination. Email is particularly problematic as a means of decision making, because it facilitates the problem of “false consensus”. For anything but simple issues of coordination, other mechanisms should be sought.
Email works very effectively in hierarchical organizations, or in groups with clearly defined roles and tasks, but runs into more problems for groups trying to work collectively and horizontally and which do not have clearly defined mechanisms for decision making, clearly defined roles, etc.. Whereas in an assembly everyone is there together, there can be a moderator, you can read body language, and encourage participation, email affords none of those things. So it takes extra effort to try to make a good exchange on lists, which can quickly become dominated by a few voices.
Top tips for avoiding email pathologies and reproducing power imbalances and distortions:
- Avoid always being the first person to weigh in on a discussion
- Keep your interventions short if possible. Lengthy emails convey the impression that you are the authority and sends a signal that you own the issue. They also create large email strings that make it even harder for others to catch up on.
- If you have already intervened, do not do so again unless you are merely clarifying your own point, until others have had a chance to weigh in. Don’t use the guise of clarification to simply restate your own position. Do clarify if you feel you have been misunderstood or misinterpreted.
- Do not write emails clarifying other’s positions, or rephrasing debates or discussions started by others. Again this signals that you “own” the issue, or have the authority to pose questions to the group but others do not. It is paternalistic, however well intentioned.
- If you do feel you must rephrase a discussion make sure to include all the points presented by others, not just token points, which you then link to your own take on the issue.
- Be aware of gender. It is a sad fact that both men and women (even feminists ) perceive male voices as more authoritative than women’s. Think about whether you are unconsciously falling into that pattern. Make an effort to consciously validate all voices in your interventions. Be aware of gender imbalances in communication.
- Make an effort to participate. Even if you just respond very briefly it helps others to feel they are being heard, that others are listening and taking part. (This applies only to those who have not intervened. People who feel they need to validate / respond to every other person’s voices are in fact exerting dominance over the group. This is email communication not Rogerian therapy).
- Avoid always or only responding to certain people.
- Avoid carrying on conversations back and forth between 2 people. Pretend you are in an assembly.
- Be aware of how communication reproduces power relations in the group. If you are one of the people who tends to dominate or participate a lot, think about your own interventions. There is a fine line between being helpful and dominating / controlling communication. If you participate little, think about why that is. Suggest ways to improve communication. Be aware of power imbalances and your own role in reproducing them.
- Seriously consider setting up a Titan Pad (now defunct, similar tools can be found: here) and then move discussion and proposals over to that space. Send email notifications about new PADS and remind people to participate.
- Remember having more expertise (or thinking you do) does not actually confer you with more authority
- Be aware of different rhetorical styles. Men for example often speak with the voice of authority (e.g. I can attest that… I think we should do X…We should do X… As someone with X years of experience in X, I can say that…). Women often adopt a more reflexive/open style (I wonder if we might…Maybe we could…Perhaps it might be a good idea to…). Remember just because something is said with authority does not make it nay more valid. Saying something more hesitantly or reflexively does not make it any less valid. Different cultures often adopt different discursive styles, some more direct, some much less so.
- Be aware of time zone differences and very real differences in people’s ability to have time to engage in email. Having more time to spend on email confers more power to influence discussions (it shouldn’t but it does). Be aware that your ability to engage in a discussion does not actually confer you with more authority in a group, and try to be reflexive about the frequency and length of your interventions.
- In email, people arriving “later to the party” often feel that consensus has been reached already or that they have missed the part of the discussion where they can usefully intervene. For this reason, among others, often a Titan Pad is a better idea.
- Actively seek alternatives to email for decision making processes of any importance, especially those involving how the group works internally, items relating to strategy, or issues where a quorum really should be in place.
- Start with the premise that email poses real barriers to participation for many reasons. Many groups operate on the assumption that email is inherently democratic, horizontal and participatory, and have remarkably little reflexivity about email. This is a mistake. Because email is so engrained in our daily practices, we often fail to see the negative impacts it has or can have.
Cronauer, K. (2004), Activism and the Internet: A Socio-Political Analysis of How the Use of Electronic
Mailing Lists Affects Mobilization in Social Movement Organizations, Vancouver, British Columbia:
University of British Columbia.
Flesher Fominaya, C. (2015) Unintended Consequences: The Negative Impact of Email Use on Participation and Collective Identity in Two “Horizontal” Social Movement Groups. The European Political Science Review doi:10.1017/S1755773914000423
Kavada, A. (2007), The European Social Forum and the Internet: A Case Study of Communication
Networks and Collective Action, PhD, University of Westminster, London.
—— (2009), ‘Email lists and the construction of an open and multifaceted identity: the case of the London
2004 European Social Forum’, Information, Communication & Society 12: 817–839.
—— (2010), ‘Email lists and participatory democracy in the European Social Forum’, Media, Culture & Society 32: 355–372.
*** Titan Pads have been adopted by many activist groups in Spain as an effective way of communication and coordination that also overcomes many email pathologies. It is one of the least recognized digital revolutions in activist coordinating practice. For more on Titan Pads and how to use them, see http://internal.masd.k12.wi.us/cms/0.Classroom.Connections/Documents/TitanPad-Guide.pdf
****Although I have focused here on virtual collectives, these tips also apply to assemblies/collectives with both on and offline meetings. For much more on the relation between on and offline spheres and the impact of email, read the article “Unintended Consequences” (Ref above)