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Jeffrey D. Roth
                            Group Relations in Cyberspace

History

My initial exposure to cyberspace was courtesy of America Online (AOL), where I set up my first electronic mail (e-mail) account in the mid-90s. In addition to the novelty of being able to send messages across the country, and even across the world, without even the benefit of a postage stamp, I ventured into the world of chat rooms in AOL. As a student of group relations, I was immediately struck by the implications of people gathering together in a virtual space: what would the group process look like?


Many of the chat rooms seemed to have the task of discussing sex or motorcycles, and entering such a room was very much like passing through the threshold of a noisy smoke-filled bar. I was greeted by a quickly changing stream of messages like a ticker tape, emanating from individuals apparently addressing one another. Any dialogue had to be inferred, since a question from person A would be followed by comments or questions by persons B, C and D before person E answered the question from person A. Even if the number of persons in the chat room was ten to twelve, analogous to the membership of a small study group, the group process seemed much closer to a large study group. The group appeared to be committed to basic assumption pairing, with very little attention or awareness of the group as a whole.


Given my professional identity as an addiction psychiatrist, I wondered whether the AOL chat rooms included any Twelve Step meetings. Having attended many face-to-face Twelve Step meetings, and having written about how the Traditions of the Twelve Step programs harness the basic assumptions to facilitate the work of these groups (Roth 2003), I was curious about how the group process of such an online meeting would compare to the group process I had discovered in the other AOL chat rooms. As I have since discovered on numerous occasions, the world of cyberspace was way ahead of me; Twelve Step meetings had already been well developed, both in AOL and other internet arenas such as internet relay chat (IRC).


These online Twelve Step meetings were characterized by a group process that was virtually (pun intended) identical to their face-to-face counterparts. We have since published a transcript of such an online meeting of Al-Anon (for the family and friends of alcoholics) (Roth and Tan 2007). What was most striking about these online Twelve Step meetings was their effortless attention to boundaries, roles, authority and task, all of which were markedly absent from the other chat room discussions. Thus these recovery meetings inspired me to consider the possibility that one could examine group process in cyberspace using the principles that we have learned from our experiences in group relations conferences.


To this end, Kevin Murphy, Jim Tifft and I set up a chat room on a web site, http://www.workingsobriety.com/. We began meeting in the chat room to obtain enough direct experience of relating as a small group in cyberspace to be able to identify thoughts, feelings and fantasies that would be likely to emerge in this forum. As I became increasingly comfortable with this form of relating, I invited the staff at the group relations conferences that I directed to meet in the chat room prior to the conference to begin exploring the staff dynamics and troubleshoot any conflicts that might interfere with recruiting membership or working collaboratively on any other task. We also offered several post-conference reviews where staff and members "met" in the chat room to continue the learning from our face-to-face conference.


From 'Real Time' to Asynchronous Communication

For many of us it is a challenge to consider group relations among people who are not physically together, sitting alone (or not alone) at computers potentially separated by vast geographical distances, whose sole connection is through a chat room. I suggest that in a similar fashion to the way in which those who have never attended a group relations conference typically have difficulty imagining spending one hour, much less several days, examining group processes, those who have never entered a chat room might have difficulty with the idea that communications among people in a chat room bears any resemblance to face-to-face communication. The barrier for us to see the similarities increases even more when the communication is not occurring in 'real time'.


I suspect that most of us are familiar with the concept of a list serve, where anyone who subscribes to the list serve receives e-mail messages from anyone who sends a message to the list serve. In such a list serve, one may observe on occasion that two or more members may engage in rather heated discussion, at times hurling epithets ('flaming') at each other, while others in the list serve participate as silent observers of the verbal combat. While such combat may occur over the course of days or weeks in a list serve, as contrasted with similar conflict in a small or large study group, which might occur over the course of minutes, the dynamics of the respective interactions may be analogous. 


Spatial and Temporal Boundaries

What we learn from communication in cyberspace may be of great value in understanding the nature of the spatial and temporal boundaries that we encounter in face-to-face groups. Working face-to-face exposes us to an enormous quantity of interpersonal data, including not only what is said, but also tone of voice, rhythm and melody of speech, facial expression, eye contact and physical posture, to name only a few sources of information about what is being communicated. In cyberspace, all of our data is digital, contained in the text.  It is precisely this limitation of information that creates a fertile space for the projections that we see in our conference work.  Ironically, perhaps, all of the effort which group relations consultants may expend to appear 'neutral' or blank in a face-to-face conference becomes unnecessary in cyberspace, where all of us remain invisible barring the extent to which we put our thoughts, feelings and fantasies into digital form. Thus, neutrality, or the perceived lack thereof, is expressed differently in cyberspace but remains equally relevant.


Whereas the vast amount of data in face-to-face communication disappears as rapidly as it is generated, buried underneath all of the information that appears in the following seconds, communication in cyberspace affords us the luxury of savoring the data, which by virtue of being digital, may be stored indefinitely. The experience of relating to others is maintained with a much altered perception of time. Even in a real time (synchronous) chat room, the space between comments, which depends on the rapidity of the person's ability to type on a keyboard and then press 'enter', may be experienced as connecting through molasses. I offer this metaphor with malice aforethought, since the 'thickness' or 'stickiness' of relating in expanded time is balanced by the 'sweetness' of having the data remain on one's tongue instead of being rapidly swallowed and digested. When the communication occurs on a list serve or in a bulletin board format, the expansion of time is even more dramatic, and the absence of pressure to type quickly, which may be present in a real time chat, allows one to savor the data at one's leisure.


Molasses, Glue, Lurkers and Attachment

Lacking almost all of the information about others that we (realize that we) take for granted in face-to-face contact, assuming the role of being silent takes on proportionately greater significance in terms of creating space for projection. Imagine the freedom of the analytic couch multiplied by one or more orders of magnitude. One might wonder whether any genuine relationship could emerge from such a restricted mode of connection. Consider, however, the growing number of marriages that have their roots in internet liaisons. Consider, as well, the virtual relationship that existed well before the internet between author and reader of the printed word. As you read this paper, you are silent; yet you may realize that you are still actively participating in an author-reader relationship.


Similarly, one may participate in a group in cyberspace as a silent observer, sometimes called a 'lurker'. This word, with its ominous connotations, illustrates the projections that most likely occur immediately in all of our interactions but come to the surface much more rapidly in cyberspace. In face-to-face relationships, all of the visual data about the silent observer serve as 'glue' in the interpersonal field; in cyberspace, the silent observer shows little if any indications of being present and provides the blank screen par excellence. Against such a perfect backdrop for projection, the group relations consultant is challenged to provide a suitable container by providing interventions that actively connect to these projections.


Considerations for the Role of Consultant in Cyberspace

These differences between face to face and virtual communication have important implications for the work of a group relations consultant in cyberspace. 


I will illustrate these implications from some of my experiences consulting to small and large groups in cyberspace. After working in cyberspace in real time in small groups of staff before a conference, and in small groups of members for post-conference review, I began using the asynchronous format in three different venues. First I co-consulted to a small study group hosted at a website http://www.psybc.com/, whose owner is a psychologist who had attended group relations conferences some years before. Having an informed host for this work may be as important as having supportive host institutions for our face-to-face conferences, since the integrity of the boundaries of our institutional 'container' determines our ability to work effectively within clear boundaries. Since my first experience, the small study group at this site has been repeated twice with different members and with different staff serving as co-consultants.


I attended two online seminars at a different web site, http://www.orgdyne.com/, whose owner, Dr. B., is an organizational development consultant with much book knowledge but no experiential knowledge of group relations prior to our association. Dr. B. then invited me to direct the first online group relations conference, and after that I co-directed an online large group, both also held at the Orgdyne website. I have also served as a member of the consulting team to two online large groups for the American Group Psychotherapy Association at a web site developed by Dr. H., a psychiatrist who had also attended face-to-face group relations conferences. I offer examples of group process from each of these venues to illustrate the impact of the consultants' role on the work of the group.


(1) Small process group at PsyBC.com: My co-consultant, Dr. K., was an experienced group relations consultant whom I invited to join me in working with this online group. We had eleven members from around the world, including the US, Canada, Great Britain, China and Singapore.  The group opened with introductions and comments from the members wondering about the task of the group, much as a face-to-face group might begin. Dr. K. and I offered occasional consultations to the group, mindful of not taking up too much space and making sure to leave enough space for members to work with our co-consultant's comments. Much of the initial work concerned the usual resistances to examining process: basic assumption dependence, fight-flight and pairing. Towards the middle of the event, three weeks into our six weeks of time together, I realized that one member of the group had a long history of working with me in face-to-face conferences and had worked with me on staff. Nothing of our past relationship had been disclosed by this member, who had used a pseudonym during this online group. When I consulted to the difficulty of working with special relationships that are not acknowledged, the 'special' member came out of the closet, and the other members were now free to express intense feelings about the past history having been withheld. My co-consultant and I were likewise free to consult to the way in which the 'special' member had been used to contain feelings from group members about our not sharing information about ourselves.


This example illustrates a major source of anxiety about group relations in cyberspace. In few other arenas do we have the option for this extent of anonymity. What we learn about each other comes only through the written word, which then establishes our role and our identity in the group. We have a choice about how we use sentient ties, including even those connections which arise from gender, race, ethnicity or any of the markers that are usable in face-to-face interactions but are invisible in cyberspace until they are explicitly expressed, declared or inquired into.


(2) Online group relations conference at Orgdyne.com (Roth 2007; Lipgar 2007): With 20/20 hindsight, mounting a full online group relations conference at the time was premature. The argument in favor of the project was that Dr. B. had gathered a substantial international group of organizational development and group relations consultants who were interested in understanding group processes as they develop in cyberspace. Even though many legitimate group relations organizations such as the Tavistock Institute and the A. K. Rice Institute seemed leery of authorizing work on group relations in cyberspace, I was able to secure institutional support from group relations organizations in France (IFSI), Israel (OFEK), India (ISABA), as well as from the organization of which I was president (CCSGO). I invited a group of experienced group relations consultants, most of whom had worked in conferences in the Tavistock tradition, and the others coming from the NTL tradition. Not coincidentally, the 'Tavi' contingent was recruited by me, and the NTL contingent was recruited through Dr. B. 


Dr. B.'s resourcefulness and drive in reaching out to colleagues in cyberspace became a source of conflict in the staff work. My understanding of the role of the consultant entails the willingness to remain attentive and accepting as anxieties rise during the course of our work. This willingness may be confused with passivity, and the need to be active may interfere with allowing enough anxiety to develop for us to engage in its interpretation. The activity of the consultant might be described as 'metabolizing' anxiety through consultation rather than becoming a 'sponge' for the group's anxiety. I trust that I am preaching to the choir here (Rice 1965).


What may be more difficult for those of us experienced in group relations consultation to appreciate is that when we are confronted with our own anxiety, our default defenses may lead us to locate this anxiety in someone who is more likely to act than we are, and then project the 'acting out' onto this target. Dr. B. seems to have become such a target. Given the opportunity for complete anonymity in cyberspace described above, we may find a reciprocal concern for reputation as a marker of identity that serves to compensate for the absence of more material markers. Dr. B. has established his reputation by being actively engaging (some have even described this activity as seductive), and this style of engagement is consistent with the pioneer quality of life in cyberspace, even if it is antithetical to our understanding of what is required for effective consultation to group process.

The advantage of capacity for universal, immediate communication in cyberspace also presents a potent challenge for maintaining boundaries in this venue.  How do we manage, for instance, e-mail communication between staff and membership that arises during the course of an online study group? The pressure to use such an outside channel is intensely magnified by the experience in cyberspace of being deprived of our usual sources of interpersonal data. We see examples of such behavior in face-to-face conferences when the staff may decide to send a message to the membership during the Institutional Event, particularly at a time when the membership seems to be avoiding the staff group.


During the online group relations conference, Dr. B. sent out a message to several of the conference members inviting them to serve on the staff of an event that he was planning for the future. When one of the members who had received this message, who not coincidentally had a special relationship with me, reported to the other members that she had received a message from Dr. B., the members demonstrated impressive competence in working with their experience of envy and betrayal. The ensuing pull in the staff group to scapegoat Dr. B. challenged my ability in my role as director to examine the whole staff's collusion in generating this boundary violation, including my own participation in (mis)managing the special relationships not only with the member who reported receiving the message, but also with the member of the staff who had expressed the greatest outrage, who not coincidentally was my mentor of thirty years in group relations conference work. Earlier during the pre-conference staff work, I had muddied the waters of our work by contacting my mentor via e-mail instead of addressing an important issue with the whole staff.


I hope that this example illustrates the need for as much attention to boundaries in cyberspace as we exercise in our face to face group relations events. How we manage the potentially conflicting demands of attending to a group process in cyberspace that has an extended life in the asynchronous group or organization, and a group process in our face to face world where the pressures for immediate response may be perceived as overwhelming, gives us a sense of why we may approach group relations in cyberspace with more than a little trepidation. Yet I suggest that these demands increasingly occupy our attention whether we study them or not.


(3) Online Large Group at AGPA: This event was first offered in 2007 and repeated in 2008.  Both events were proposed to AGPA by Dr. H., who invited me and a female psychologist to work with him on the consulting team of the first event, and then invited me and a different female psychologist on the team of the second event. The change in the female team member coincided with a shift in the dynamics of the large groups.


The first large group was characterized by great curiosity and cautious enthusiasm by the participating members. About a hundred participants registered at the web site, and half of those registered posted a comment. A dozen participants were very active, posting ten or more times during the course of the event, which lasted two weeks. As I tabulated those who had registered and how many times they had posted, I was able to visualize a large face-to-face group with three concentric circles. In the outer circle were those members (about 50 of them) who had never posted, who were watching the theater of the two circles inside them. A middle circle contained 35 members, the female psychologist and me, who had posted one to several times.  The center circle consisted of a dozen active members and Dr. H., whose role might have been experienced as vacillating between consultant and member.


The second large group event was characterized by a more dramatic split in the consulting team. The female psychologist, who had been recruited by me, was aligned with my interpretive stance, which may have left Dr. H. holding the lion's share of basic assumption dependence. Comments were posted, both by members and Dr. H., on the bulletin board used for the large group prior to the start time of the event. This time boundary confusion was noted by the members, who then became stuck in themes of alienation and meaninglessness in the first half of the event. Consultations by me to the members' perceptions of our difficulties working together as a team fell on deaf ears as Dr. H. became increasingly active in attempts to rescue the members from their anomie, and our female consultant entirely lost her voice (and did not post once during the event). Despite these difficulties, the group maintained a structure similar to the first large group event, with my visualizing an outer circle of 40 members including our female consultant, a middle circle of 25 members including me, and a center circle of ten members and Dr. H.


Conclusion

The group processes characteristic of small and large groups that we have studied in face-to-face events and conferences are also available for study in cyberspace. In the same manner that we have observed in face-to-face groups, our capacity to effectively, meaningfully, productively and accurately interpret these processes and their underlying dynamics in the cyberspace groups depends critically on the integrity and clarity of the boundaries, roles, authority and tasks that govern the functioning of these groups. While group processes in cyberspace are clearly affected by the differences in communication style and content between cyberspace and face-to-face interactions, our attention to the group as a whole, our willingness to focus on process rather than content, and our commitment to an examination of boundaries, roles, authority and task allow us to engage in a meaningful analysis of group relations in cyberspace. Indeed, some of these differences offer the potential for heretofore impossible studies, including the use of asynchronous communication across time zones to conduct a group with an international membership and the opportunity to create a verbatim transcript of an entire group that contains all of the data that each participant has access to during the event. These differences open opportunities to further elucidate face-to-face group relations, which carries the hope of these two venues, face-to-face and cyberspace, being mutually supportive rather than competitive endeavors.


References:

Lipgar, R. M. (2007) Experiences in the First On-Line Group Relations Conference: Lessons Learned; presented at the ISPSO Annual Meeting, June 25-July 1, 2007.

Rice, A. K. (1965) Learning for Leadership, London: Tavistock Publications.

Roth, J. D. (2003) Alcoholics Anonymous as Medical Treatment for Alcoholism:  A Group-analytic Perspective on how it Works. In: Building on Bion: Branches. Lipgar, R. M. and Pines, M. (eds.). Jessica Kingsley Publishers.

Roth, J. D. and Tan, E. (2007) Analysis of an On-line Al‑Anon Meeting. Journal of Groups in Addiction and Recovery, 2(1): 5-39.

Roth, J. D. (2007) unpublished director's report from the first online group relations conference.