Negotiation of meaning

Both f2f and asynchronous conversations allow ‘interjections’ at chosen points in the communication.

In the case of synchronous f2f conversations this is represented by readily identifiable ‘light’ and ‘heavy’ interventions. An example of a light intervention being an ‘aha’ or some other encouraging utterance, a nod of the head, or a facial gesture, etc. Heavy interventions are represented by interruptions, that are challenging an idea/statement, picking up and developing a point etc. This process can be seen as one of negotiation, that is establishing an understanding or interpretation of events that, to or a greater or lesser extent, ‘tally’ with each other.

With asynchronous online conversations, the practice of negotiation of meaning is somewhat stymied. Light interventions are far less frequent so the feedback we expect and usually receive f2f often doesn’t happen, or is reduced in frequency. Heavy interventions are equally rare often in the form of challenges or requests for further information. An exception to this can sometimes be observed with ësophisticatedí users of asynchronous online communication tools, although this also is uncommon.

So where does this leave the negotiation of meaning? In online asynchronous conversations the level of assumption between discussants is far higher than f2f conversations.

To what extent this matters depends largely on the purpose of the conversation. If it is for sharing of information, or generating ideas – a brainstorming session – it matters little that there is no discernable negotiation. If however, the purpose of the conversation is to come to a common understanding it is essential that a ëtrueí negotiation of meaning takes place. Likewise, if it is for guidance on a task or activity it would seem to be important that both sides have some level of certainty that what has been said has been heard and what has been heard has indeed been said!

To what extent this difference between synchronous f2f and asynchronous online is a feature of us learning a ‘new literacy’ of communication or an unavoidable feature of the technology is a point for discussion. Perhaps as we become more sophisticated in out use of online technology negotiation of meaning will become second nature, or as Rheingold indicates in his book ëThe Virtual Community: Homesteading on the Electronic Frontierí it is a feature of the technology that online communications are good at raising issues and generating debate and ideas but lousy at reaching consensus or agreements!

1 thought on “Negotiation of meaning

  1. Shirley

    Some times I wonder if reaching consensus is really any easier f2f – its still the dominant voices who manage to get meaning negotiated in their favour. I used to think that online discussions are more democratic, but now I’m beginning to wonder if it isn’t all an illusion.

    Perhaps light interventions are less frequent online because of the technology (power up, log in etc) but also are open to misinterpretation. There seems to be more need to explain, to make up for the lack of body language clues.


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