Trapped in the Web of Forms

Trapped in a Web of Online Forms

Most handwringing over the Internet is focused on social media and worries over the decline of civility, such as with online bullying or harassment. It might be that this focus misses one of the most worrying trends online for me, which is the migration of interpersonal communication to interaction with online forms. I’m afraid of being trapped in a world wide web of forms and templates that distance me from communication with real human beings.

Forms are not new and they can be a good thing. We have to fill in forms to apply for jobs, credit cards, universities, and virtually everything. The Internet and Web make it easier to create and complete a form. The problem is that this is becoming so easy that too many individuals and organizations are creating too many forms for too many things. It is clearly the case of too much of a good thing.

In fact, we are creating so many forms that there is a demand for software for individuals to use to fill out forms. You can automate your completion of forms, such as automatically filling in your email and address details. But this just throws gasoline on the fire, making easier and easier to complete forms, and incentivizing the use of more forms. imgres-1

The problem is that they can distance people from communicating with real people. You fill out a form instead of speaking to a person. No person may read your completed form. It is processed automatically – it can be truly automated. In fact, if you wanted to speak with a real person about the form and its purpose, you might find it difficult if not impossible to do so. In short, forms are increasingly mediating if not substituting for human communication.

They also shift the workload – the costs. Forms are one of the lifelines of bureaucracies and, not surprisingly, Web-based forms are literally automating bureaucracies. Any bureaucrat can create a form to replace actually talking to people. This is an approach to shifting the workload from the bureaucrat to the individual customer, staff person, citizen, or consumer. Instead of a manager or bureaucrat sifting through files to pull together specific information about a particular population, say his or her staff, s/he asks the staff to fill in a Web-based form. Wah lah, each individual has to do the work, and the results are automatically aggregated on a simple spreadsheet. No work for the administrator, but the administrator is somewhat distanced from the quality and nature of the information, which s/he might have gathered from assembling it the old way.

By replacing more direct interaction, forms can also eliminate or reduce tacit knowledge that can be gained through interpersonal communication, such as with students. Step by step, online courses are moving teachers away from direct contact with students. Contact will be the exception rather than the rule. Once a team of instructors set up a course, with automatic enrollment, payments, assignments, and grading, only the problems bubble up to be handled by the live instructors, and maybe even the professor versus online teaching assistants. As a teacher, I cannot help but believe this will inevitably undermine the instructor’s sense of the audience – the students. Arguably, the instructor will know more, such as how many students watch which videos, looked at which slides, and scored what marks on each assignment. And they can reach thousands of students rather than tens or hundreds of students. But this automation of the virtual classroom is just added incentive to automate ever more of the teaching experience.

I for one do not want to go back to a day of filling in forms by hand. Forms can be a nightmare in any medium. But the dream of the Internet and Web was once one of bypassing levels of hierarchy and bureaucratic lines of authority to communicate more directly with information and people. It turns out that this might have been a transitory phenomenon that is giving way to a more form-based and more automated bureaucratic future than one could ever have imagined. imgres-2

It may seem hopeless. You are increasingly forced to fill in a form to do anything. Recently, when preparing to submit a proposal, my university messaged me that before I submitted the proposal, I had to complete an exam, based on reading an online tutorial. To meet the deadline, I had to break all records in working through the tutorial and passing the exam in the nick of time to meet the proposal deadline. This is automated bureaucratic power being exercised without mussing a hair on the head of any administrator.

What can be done? You can call attention to cases when forms are being over-used or used inappropriately. Let colleagues and others know about bad forms, such as those that are not usable or user friendly. When you have an option, ask about whether participating in a particular task will require you to work with automated forms and templates. When you don’t like the expectations, and you have an option, you can refuse to participate in activities that require form mediated interaction. Also, be vocal and strategic in complaining about forms that undermine real communication with an individual or an organization. Rage against the new machine – the online forms and templates.

Please let me know or comment if you know of people thinking about these issues. You can reach me personally on William.Dutton at gmail.com

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