The VLSG represented my first encounter with Group Relations (GR), so I approached it with equal intrigue and apprehension.
It consisted of a single bulletin board where members could post comments and the only direction we were given came in the form of the rather abstruse sentence: ‘Your role as members is to participate in the VLSG in any way that you believe will enhance your learning about these virtual large group dynamics as they develop in the process of the VLSG.‘
My fears of being the only novice seemed confirmed when, from such general instructions, a ‘way of doing things’ appeared to have been implicitly adopted by many members. It was plain that recruitment had come from a narrow catchment, in so far as everyone had some connection to the organisations hosting the event and several voices had quite particular views on how to proceed.
At the same time, however, it became clear that as a first attempt to translate GR into an online world, all participants were in some sense first-timers, and beyond this, being an outsider gave me a sense of having a different perspective to bring.
The most noticeable element of the environment was how the medium privileged the written word. In comparison with speech, written language can feel restrictive; denying much that we use to understand people’s meaning; no tone, pace, nor volume, no facial expression, or body language and at times this contributed to confusing and chaotic exchanges, amplified in part by the narrowness of a common vocabulary.
Chaotic or otherwise the VLSG certainly evoked a strong response, at points I felt attended to and supported, at others embarrassingly exposed, and at yet others ignored altogether, sometimes frustrated and other times enthralled. On completion I was disappointed that more had not been achieved (whatever this might have looked like) but had also felt involved throughout. Ultimately I was left with the sense that the experience had been significant without any certainty as to why just yet.
Matt Gieve is a Researcher / Consultant at the Tavistock Institute of Human Relations.