A few years ago I read a book by Kit Yarrow called Decoding the New Consumer Mind. This book examined the fascinating phenomenon of digital interactions with brands. Before the exposure of brands on a digital level and the ability for people to spread thoughts quickly to an extremely large audience, companies could act like just that: a company. However, the ability the Internet has created for customers to interact with brands through emails, social media sites, and websites has created a new desire among consumers: that brands must have a soul.
This has been demonstrated through several different brand/customer interactions throughout recent history—both good and bad—and forces companies to re-examine both what they believe in on a moral and ethical level as well as how they can respond to their consumer on a level that feels human.
Choosing an ethical model that promotes caring and empathy is what will make the difference between a company thriving in online spaces and becoming a beloved brand and being completely destroyed by outraged consumers.
It is imperative that brands take ethical approaches to online communications seriously and engage the customer’s feelings if they are going to survive in this digital world.
Professional digital spaces present an interesting situation: asynchronous (most often) conversations where a balance is attempted to be struck between what we ourselves want to communicate versus what someone else wants to communicate versus what we need versus what the recipient needs. Instead of being in a room where everyone can have a synchronous conversation about what everyone wants and needs, digital spaces create a delicate space of balancing ideas and people.
Digital interactions in a business setting can ensure they are approaching a communication ethically (at least by care ethics standards) by looking at what they (the company) want to say versus how it will affect the audience and how the audience will receive the information. For example, if a company wants to have a higher search ranking and knows that having business locations listed on Google will increase their search ranking, their needs are clear. They have the option to connect their company to a physical location even if it is not an actual store: so they are faced with a dilemma that can be routed differently based on what ethical model the company follows. If the company follows a utilitarian ethical model, they will feel it is acceptable to list store locations that are not real because they will get higher search rankings and have exposure to people who want their product. However, if a company is established in a care ethics model, they will look at how this will affect the company’s care receivers (the customers). Will customers attempt to drive to the fake location and be frustrated? Will this create confusion and distrust between customers and the company? These are questions that care ethics attempts to satisfy by saying that what is best for everyone involved, not just the company, is the ethical route to take. So striking a balance could be that the company lists any real locations it has to increase its search ranking and customers are taken care of by being able to trust that the company will meet their needs.
In terms of online classrooms, the unique challenges of this digital space can be difficult to overcome. As we’ve seen in all digital spaces, it can be difficult to not just blurt out our ideas or feelings, seeing the interaction as solely between us and an abstract idea that we either agree with or need to disagree with/attack. This behavior is lessened in a face-to-face classroom because we are taught from an early age to be more empathetic in face-to-face social interactions. This can be carried over into an online experience, however, through instructing students (and, as professors, remembering ourselves) that each of the comments is attached to a physical person. Before they post any comment or response to another person’s comment, each student should ask themselves, “Would I say this thing/say it in this manner if I was speaking with them in a physical room?” Approaching interactions in this manner allows for all parties to meet their needs; helping all communications in the space be delivered in a respectful, caring manner.
The nature of digital spaces makes it easy to focus on the only person we can physically see—ourselves. By reframing digital spaces via ethical models that focus on human interactions and relationships, we can attempt to bring in the human element into digital interactions.
I have had online-classroom experiences that have varied widely—both good and bad—based on how a professor thinks a digital classroom should be constructed. There is, unfortunately, no overall standard of how to approach an online classroom, and this can affect the quality of interactions. There are many different ethical models that can be applied to this digital space, such as Rogerian or Deontological models; however, care ethics, while seen as an unusual choice for interactions that are not face to face and personal, frames the interactions in a way that weighs the care receiver’s needs heavier than the care giver’s needs.
When a professor approaches an online classroom with the concept that they are going to tell students what they know and think, they can potentially set themselves up for a more hostile digital space. They could be more abrupt with a student that has another opinion, sharp with a student that doesn’t quickly understand—or misunderstands—concepts, or not provide enough course information (expectations, deadlines, examples, etc.). However, when a professor approaches an online classroom with care ethics in mind, the professor is ethically responsible to be attentive to the students and provide an environment that fosters student learning in a way that best fits this group’s needs. A professor would approach the digital space with the understanding that it is not about them or their beliefs but rather the students’ needs and development. This could change a professor’s approach from attacking a student that presents an idea they do not like to focus on the student as a person rather than an abstract idea and exploring the concept and/or leading the student to a better train of thought with the same compassion and attentiveness that often is found in face-to-face classrooms.
Professors can also set up their online space so that way students are encouraged to approach other students’ comments the same way. By outlining behavioral expectations and explaining how comments are attached to real people, students can be encouraged to be less aggressive in their interactions. Another way to frame the digital interactions is to introduce the students to the concept of rhetorical listening. Giving students the tools they need to understand empathy in the online classroom will help for an experience that satisfies the care receivers’ needs (both professor-to-peer and peer-to-peer interactions).
Digital spaces can often cause people to relax and focus more on themselves and their feelings and ideas, but looking at the digital space through a care-ethics lens encourages both the professor and the student to see the comments and thoughts shared as attached to real people complete with feelings and needs.