David, Hillary and the power of face to face


  • Social brain

By all accounts the meeting between David Miliband and Hillary Clinton went very well. The foundations for a strong interpersonal working relationship may be affection and respect, shared values and purpose, or a hard headed sense of mutual dependence. It looks like Miliband and Clinton have all three.

The recession is now leading to deep cuts in corporate travel budgets, but the defenders of executive jet-hopping emphasise the importance of face to face contact in deal making. In contrast, on-line collaboration is proving to be an elusive goal.

Personal collaboration, involving working through different interests and perspectives, relies on a high level of reciprocal communication. If we disagree on one topic I need to know, or sense, enough about you to calculate what appeal I might make to other values or interests that you hold. I have also to believe that if I give up some ground, you may too. Face to face, most of this happens though processes of unconscious communication (the evidence for this has been gathered by Daniel Goleman in his book, Social Intelligence).

There are, of course, many examples of collaboration on-line: Linux, Wikipedia, campaigns like Obama’s, but these are all vertical processes in which participants contribute to a central shared objective on the basis of agreed rules of engagement. Horizontal collaboration, when people of the same status agree their own objectives, ways of working and mutual commitments, is different and much harder. This is one reason for the limited success (in relation to the overall scale of on-line activity) both of attempts to translate on-line exchange into off-line activity and of forms of web-based deliberation designed to get people of different views to listen and learn from each other. The unconscious clues that tell us co-operation and compromise will be matched and rewarded are simply not there.

Another dimension of this is reported by Jonah Lehrer.   It turns out that the social networks on Facebook are significantly different to those off-line. Whereas in the off-line world popular people tend to network with other popular people, in Facebook the networks of the most popular are often inhabited by those whose own networks are very small. As Lehrer concludes:     

Facebook is a new experiment in human social interaction, and we shouldn't be surprised that the network dynamics of Facebook don't resemble the network dynamics of the real world, whatever that is.

The big question is whether on-line collaboration will always be much weaker and shallower than off-line or whether it is simply that we haven’t yet developed the tools to compensate for the absence of the kind of face to face dynamics seen yesterday in Washington.

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