As TS Eliot wrote, “There is no life that is not in community.” Our definition of community, though, is fluid. Today, it is not just the people in your neighbourhood. Your community might include members from across the country or across the world. At the same time, the idea of community in terms of the place in which you live, the geographic location you call home, is still very important, particularly as we face complex social issues and concerns. When we are engaging community, which “community” are we talking about? How do we use technology to facilitate our goals most effectively, and when is the best technology the social technology of a face-to-face meeting?
When deciding whether to create a virtual (on –line) meeting or an in-person meeting, it is important to consider:
- Who are we trying to bring together?
- Where are they coming from?
- Why are they coming together?
- How hard is it to get them into the same space?
- Budgetary concerns.
Logistically, virtual meetings have a number of benefits. They tend to facilitate wider participation among community members in which transportation or time may be limited. As well, virtual meetings can allow participants to submit questions or comments anonymously, which may encourage those who would not normally do so to speak up.
We must also think about the purpose of the engagement. Is it important that people get to know each other and establish trust? In face-to-face meetings, you can get more in-depth responses from people and delve into ideas on a deeper level. Online meetings tend to support shallower, shorter conversations, but on the other hand, it can be easier to achieve greater breadth. That is, we can reach more people, though the discussion is not as intensive. It is often a breadth-depth trade-off. Depending on what you need, and what you are trying to get out of the engagement, you may decide that one or the other is more important.
There is no “right” answer here. We cannot always have face-to-face meetings, nor are they always ideal for what we are trying to accomplish. The best way to engage the public is to carefully consider their needs as well as the objectives of the engagement. The important thing to remember, though, is that there is always a way to reach people.