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Part of Using Instant Messaging to Work With Volunteers: Benefits and Suggestions

version: November 2002

Why informal communication is so important with volunteers

There is a plethora of data and studies that discuss the role that informal communication plays in effective collaboration. Informal communications builds relationships among staff members and volunteers, and face-to-face interaction is the primary way people communicate informally. But with offsite volunteers, face-to-face interactions can be rare or impossible. One of the biggest advantages of IM is that it can bring informal communication into working with offsite volunteers. Informal exchanges via IM add personality to electronic exchanges, a human touch that can be sorely needed when physical meetings aren't possible.

There are various IM programs available, most of them free, and most of them offering the same features:

  • a customized address book or friends list that shows who is available for IM and who isn't
  • a way for users to note if they are online and available for IM, online but not available for IM, or not online at all
  • the ability for people engaged in an IM conversation to know when the other person is typing a message
  • icons or "emoticons" that express laughter, sadness, fear, confusion, silliness, and a variety of other emotions
  • IM, because of its perceived informality, feels more social to most people than email. And the pressures of work and the partitioning of people in front of computers and away from each other makes socialization at work more difficult but no less important. IM is expressive, and allows for connections in a more meaningful way. "It is interesting that a lightweight technology consisting of no more than typing text into a window succeeds in providing enough context to make a variety of social exchanges vivid, pleasurable, capable of conveying humor and emotional nuance," notes the report "Interaction and Outeraction: Instant Messaging in Action."

    Based on her experiences with the 1996 TOP-funded Community NETworker project, Terry Grunwald says IM and chat can serve "as a virtual pitcher of ice tea," meaning that these online forums can allow participants to gather and share information in a friendly, informal, more neighborly-way.

    "I think it is important to understand that different folks have different communication styles. I do not use IM myself these days. It's not for everyone. But it was amazing to see that some of our NETworkers who were reluctant to speak up in face-to-face meetings, really blossomed in this medium."

    The E-Volunteering team at the UN Volunteers programme in Bonn, Germany is responsible for two initiatives: managing the Online Volunteering service, and UNITeS, a global initiative that places and supports ICT volunteers in developing countries all over the world. Staff involved with these initiatives have found IM to be a valuable tool in working with offsite volunteers.

    Alexandra Haglund-Petitbo at UNV works with ICT volunteers in the field using a variety of media, but her favorite is IM, which she first used after returning from a trip to India. "I really bonded with one of our volunteers there, and he asked if I was on IM. He explained to me what it was, and I got on when I got back (to Germany). And I've been able to maintain that close relationship with this volunteer because of IM."

    "There is warmth in IM. I feel closer to the person on the other end of the computer. I can get emotional, they can get emotional. It just feels so much more personal. It gives me the chance to be myself, even to be more creative online."

    "Email is, to me, something formal. It's for long, official things. It's static. It has it's place, ofcourse. But IM is informal. I use it with 'my' people in the field. I write them and, if they are available, they write back immediately. They may say, 'I can't write right now,' and that's fine, because it's an immediate response. I may email someone and not hear from them for days, and think, gee, are they ignoring me?"

    If a user is not available for IM, he or she can note such automatically; anyone who has that person in his or her online address book or friends list would see a symbol next to the person's name that notes the person is not available. Or, a user can simply choose to ignore an IM if he or she isn't available for a live online chat; most users are in the same boat when it comes to stress and amount of work, and most users won't inquire further if they don't get an immediate response from you when they IM you.

    The report "Interaction and Outeraction: Instant Messaging in Action" notes that "Responding to an instant message is extremely lightweight compared to the effort of dialing in to retrieve and respond to a voicemail message or finding someone face-to-face at just the right moment for a conversation."

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