Virtually Present

My friend and colleague, Peg Boyles of University of New Hampshire Cooperative Extension, offered this followup to my earlier post, “What Museums Can Teach Us,” which explores how Web 2.0 technology is forcing private- and public-sector agencies alike to rethink our standing vis-à-vis their clients.

A quantum shift, the move from seeing oneself and one’s organization as the single/primary source of information to behaving as one (however deeply informed) node in a networked conversation. Not to mention the overt recognition that others in the network may have a lot to teach as well as learn, and that others may challenge your data/information/point of view—even your credibility.

Funny, I was thinking along a somewhat similar vein as I wrote this piece.  I was reminded of a scene from recent documentary about Air Force One in which a staff member points to a threshold separating the ultra-secure presidential compartment from the rest of the plane.

“Everything beyond this point is the White House,” said the staff member, as he gestured toward the presidential compartment.

I was struck by that statement.  Until comparatively recently in our history, the term “White House” delineated a specific physical space located at what is now known as 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.  Only since World War II, following the rapid growth of U.S. presidential power and influence, has that term been expanded to encompass more abstract concepts, such as officially designated space aboard a Boeing VC-25.

Now, with the advent of Web 2.0, these kinds of abstract definitions are becoming increasingly common in every facet of our lives.

Until recently, the Alabama Cooperative Extension System would have been defined as an organization encompassing a brick-and-mortar headquarters in Auburn and Normal, Alabama as well as some 800 employees operating in county and regional offices throughout the state.  Now, this definition stands alongside a considerably more abstract, nontraditional definition — a virtual Alabama Extension presence encompassing an official Web site as well as numerous social media venues.

Peg is right to point out that this nontraditional virtual presence creates an entirely new set of dynamics.  We no longer occupy the commanding heights we once enjoyed when we were confined to a single definition.  Now we are merely nodes in a vastly extended network.  Likewise, our standing vis-à-vis our clients has undergone a marked change.  Social media now afford us with opportunities to learn as much from our clients as they do from us.

What fascinates me most, though, is the underlying irony in all of this. Think about it:  This new definition, while greatly diminishing our historic role and standing with our clients, nonetheless presents us with the greatest opportunities in our history for expanding the Cooperative Extension concept and mission.

Equally ironic, this new definition, despite all the displacement it has caused, is every bit as critical to our continued survival and success as the traditional definition that preceded it.

It has been said that politics makes strange bedfellows. For that matter, so does technological change.

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One response to “Virtually Present

  1. Yeah, you’ve got a website. Your website features: table-based layout, broken links, lists of pdf files, tacky background images, inconsistency, crowded drop-down menus that have to be manually activated, expired announcements, browser compatibility issues, and very little educational content, among other things. You’ve got a very bad website.

    Presumably none of the 800 experts in the Alabama Cooperative Extension System has any interest in web design or communication. Don’t expect to retake the lofty heights while this version of the website is online.

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