The Riddle of Online Resonance (first instalment)

Here is the first instalment of our paper on e-resonance. We will post two further instalments, which will cover sections 4&5 and 6&7 – some of which are referred to in this instalment (so they are coming soon!).  We hope to post the next instalments over the next few days and the entire paper as a PDF with the next instalment. As I mentioned in my last post, we would really welcome some comment/feedback – either here or on Matthias’ blog


The Riddle of Online Resonance

Matthias Melcher and Jenny Mackness


This discussion paper explores the nature of online connectivity and, in particular, seeks to better understand how online connections are made in the very first instance of contact. There has been plenty of research on how to develop online connections once they have been made, but the question of how the initial contact is made has not received much attention. What is it that enables a potentially beneficial connection to be made with a previously unknown online communicator? We propose that the answer lies in online resonance, which we have called ‘e-resonance’. In this paper we consider what the characteristics, affordances and affecting factors of e-resonance might be. What sparks it off? This might not be the content of the post, but rather a secondary topic such as a mutually shared interest. What are the key indicators of e-resonance? Are there any specific skills associated with e-resonance? In response to these questions we discuss the possibility of ‘beyond verbal’ communication and the importance of being able to filter and select information on personal and conceptual levels. We also consider what e-resonance might mean for the author and reader of online messages in terms of stimulating new thinking. E-resonance is a riddle which is relevant to connectivity and knowledge creation in the online environment. However, we conclude that the riddle of online resonance remains, as yet, unsolved.

1. Introduction

This paper/blog has arisen from the mutual interest of the two authors in online connectivity. George Siemens, in the 2008 Connectivism and Connective Knowledge Massive Open Online Course (CCK08 – which both authors attended) has written about the primacy of connection for learning.

Connectivism emphasizes the primacy of the connection and suggests understanding learning is found in understanding how and why connections form. George Siemens (2009)

Learning through connectivity is not a new idea; there is a long history of research into networked learning (Steeple & Jones, 2002; Goodyear et al., 2004) and social learning in communities of practice (Wenger, 1998), but the affordances offered by Web 2.0 technologies and networked online learning for autonomous learning in an increasingly diverse environment (Downes, 2009) have led to many authors (Krebs (2002), Haythornthwaite (2002), Granovetter (1973, 1983), to name but a few) exploring how connections are made and developed in online environments.

However, much of this existing research focuses on understanding connections once they have been made, for example on how to increase connections and exploit the diversity that the web offers (Downes, 2007, 2010), or the types of connections that are made (Haythornthwaite, 2002). There is little research that we can find which explores ‘how’ connections are made in the very first instance of contact.

What is it in an online environment that causes/enables one person to recognise another, in that first instance of ‘meeting’, as a potential learning partner, colleague or friend and to make the connection? Trying to understand this question seems to be increasingly important in a world where learners can easily find themselves in complex open education systems. The freedom these systems afford can lead to messy, chaotic learning environments, which are a far cry from the tidy, goal-directed, message-transfer that is common to traditional learning systems. Learners can easily feel lost, unsupported and unable to find their way in the environment or make appropriate connections (Darken & Sibert,1996; Mackness et al. 2010). A better understanding of how initial connections are made online is needed by both teachers and learners.  We suggest that this might be possible if we consider more closely an intriguing, novel, promising phenomenon that is increasingly encountered in online work and which we want to call ‘online resonance’, or ‘e-resonance’ for short.

What do we mean by e-resonance? When an idea or other element of an online artefact by an online author (A) ‘resonates with’ an online reader (R), and R comments or responds, or at least will subsequently watch more attentively for more work of A, then resonance occurs. This resonance initially occurs on a social (person to person) level, but we will later see (in section 4) that e-resonance also involves the conceptual level and, furthermore, links the two levels in a very singular way.

Outside the online world, patterns of interpersonal exchanges have long been described by acoustic metaphors such as “it resonates with me” or “it strikes a chord” or “we are on the same wavelength“. When encountered in online exchanges, however, these metaphors assume an entirely new frame of reference. What is novel and unique about this is not only the range of promising, powerful affordances of resonance in the online environment (see section 5) such as facilitation of learning connections, stimulation of unexpected ideas and filtering out of essential aspects, to name a few, but also the complex, baffling process of igniting the resonance effect, which can hardly be predicted but can be clearly identified when it has happened. While it is possible to identify some criteria for determining when it might happen (see section 4), for describing some factors that are associated with it (see section 6), and for approximately describing the mechanics of how it works (see section 3), the exact reasons for why it happens, are even more difficult to pin down and might remain a riddle for quite some time in the future.

In writing this paper we have not attempted to solve this riddle, but rather to explore its unique characteristics, with a view to increasing our understanding of online communication and how this might differ from face-to-face (F2F) communication.

2. E-resonance and F2F communication

Much has already been written about the differences between online and F2F communication ( see for example Jonassen & Kwon, 2001; Conole et al. 2006; Creanor et al. 2006; Sharpe et al. 2005), but considering them from the perspective of e-resonance provides an additional/alternative perspective.

A core difference between online and offline communication is that offline we are immersed in a common environment which forces people at both ends of the communication channel into a binding protocol of understanding, asking back, or contradicting. Online, we are asynchronously situated at our own ends of the communication channel, having the freedom to pick distinct aspects to mentally engage with, interpret them individually and independently of others and then decide whether to react (arguing or affirming) or just skip them.

Another difference is that offline any minor misunderstandings in the conversation can be quickly resolved through questioning or reacting. Conversely, major misunderstandings or talking past each other might go unnoticed or be ignored, leaving the illusion of successful communication, which can often be the primary goal. In contrast, online we have more freedom to disregard and ignore elements of communication and engage only with resonating elements. As a result this online communication may be more thorough and reflective, whilst at the same time always offering the potential for replying, but not forcing this.

Perhaps the most significant difference between F2F and online communication is that the online environment offers a unique combination of the affordances of slower literal reflections and faster oral/F2F reactions. While literality, as commonly experienced through reading books, typically offers more opportunities for reflection than orality, it has the shortcoming that reactions are slow or hardly possible, especially in the offline paper world. The technologically enabled online environment, by contrast, simultaneously allows for both quick reactivity and asynchronous slower reflection.

F2F communication therefore tends to aim for agreement through accommodation, tolerance and avoiding confrontation by talking past each other, even in cases of intellectual debate where communicators will agree to disagree. Asynchronous online communication, on the other hand, allows for more reflection and choice and the ‘potential’ to respond is more in the communicator’s control. So trust, empathy, closeness and friendship, all of which affect learning and communication arise differently in the two environments (on and offline).

3. Characteristics of e-resonance

For this paper we consider resonance best explored in terms of one-one connections, as described in section 1 for author A and reader R, rather than one to many or many to one connections, which are often considered when investigating how online communication occurs.

Reflection on how any online connection is initiated, what might spark e-resonance, leads immediately to the realisation that e-resonance is related to common thinking patterns and interests. It does not appear to be related to the age of communicators, although their cultural backgrounds may be influential. These aspects are not surprising.  Perhaps more surprising is that e-resonance does not necessarily involve reciprocity and should not be confused with recognition. It does not require a response to be made for it to occur; it precedes this stage of communication. Neither does it involve acknowledgement, nor the identification of something as having been previously seen, heard or known. All this would imply that e-resonance is under our control, whereas we believe that it relates to ‘out of control’ unconscious communication. This being ‘out of control’ is in line with the complexity of online communication, where learning and connectivity are necessarily unpredictable, surprising and emergent (Snowden, 2007; Morrison, K. 2008).(See section 4 for further discussion of unconscious communication in e-resonance).

Whilst resonance is related to common thinking patterns and interests, this does not mean that it is related to ‘same’ thinking patterns and interests. Resonance is not about ‘sameness’. Rather it is about one or more ‘similarities’, which may be nonverbal or ‘beyond verbal’ (see section 4). To find like-minded people who just share the same interest we could simply search for a suitable forum or other site. E-resonance is more than this.

The idea that resonance is about similarity rather than sameness is supported by the work of Etienne Wenger who writes that, ‘When we engage in a conversation, we somehow recognise in each other something of ourselves, which we address’ (Wenger, 1998, p.56). Wenger is also clear that communication in a community of practice is not always harmonious. What we recognise has to do with our mutual ability to negotiate meaning. This mutuality does not, however, entail equality or respect (p.56). Likewise, the notion that e-resonance is about similarity, does not mean that it is always positive and harmonious. It can equally be disharmonious or negative.

Unpicking the difference between similarity and sameness further, the authors have discussed it in the following terms:

Imagine a world consisting of 995 rectangles and 5 parallelograms. We have ignored the parallelograms because our teachers have focussed on the tidy rectangles. Replacing rectangles with “successful message transfer communication” and parallelograms with “out-of-control communication with the chance of inspiring resonance”, provides a picture for explaining the relationship between out of control communication and e-resonance.

E-resonance will therefore mean different things to different people and will be experienced differently according to the context. At initiation e-resonance might involve unspoken/ beyond-verbal sameness or similarities, about common ground and similar thoughts, but the verbal messages of the exchange itself might lead to difference and dissimilarity if this helps cross-pollination and stimulation of ideas. This mixture of intertwined verbal/ nonverbal and personal/ conceptual ingredients all adds to the riddle of online resonance.

(See also second instalment – posted on 14-09-2010)


Conole, G., deLaat, M., Dillon, T. & Darby, J. (2006). An in-depth case study of students’ experiences of e-learning – how is learning changing? Proceedings of the 23rd annual ascilite conference: Who’s learning? Whose technology?

Creanor, L., Trinder, K., Gowan, G. & Howells, C. (2006) LEX: the learner experience of e-learning final project report, August 2006. Report under the JISC e-pedagogy understanding my learner programme. Glasgow: Glasgow Caledonian University.

Darken, R.P. & Sibert, J.L. (1996). Navigating Large Virtual Spaces. Int. J. of Human-Computer Interaction, 8 (1), 49-72.

Downes, S. (2007) What Connectivism Is. Retrieved 29-08-2010 from:

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Goodyear , P., Jones, C., Hodgson, v., Asensio, M. & Steeples, C. (2004) Undergraduate students’ experiences of networked learning in UK higher education: a survey-based study. Advances in research on networked learning. (Goodyear, P. ed.) Dordrecht : Kluwer Academic Publishers.

Granovetter, M. S. (1973)  The Strength of Weak Ties. Vol. 78. No.6, p.1360-1380. The American Journal of Sociology. Retrieved 28-08-2010 from:

Granovetter, M.S. (1983). The strength of weak ties: A network theory revisited. 1, 201-233, Sociological Theory. Retrieved 29-08-2010, from:

Haythornthwaite, C. (2002) Strong, weak and latent ties and the impact of new media, 18, 385-401. The information Society.

Jonassen, D.H. & Kwon, H. (2001) Communication patterns in computer mediated versus face-to-face group problem solving. Vol.49, No. 1, p.35-51. Educational Technology, research and development.

Krebs, V. & Holley, J. (2002) Building Sustainable Communities through Network Building. Retrieved 28-08-2010 from:

Mackness, J., Mak, S.F.J. & Williams, R. (2010) The Ideals and Reality of Participating in a MOOC. Networked Learning Conference 2010. Retrieved 28-08-2010 from:

Morrison, K. (2008). Educational Philosophy and the Challenge of Complexity Theory, 40(1), Philosophy.

Sharpe, R., Benfield, G., Lessner, E. & DeCicco, E. (2005). Final report: Scoping study for the pedagogy strand of the JISC learning programme. Retrieved 29-08-2010, from:

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Snowden, D.J. & Boone, M.E. (2007) A Leader’s Framework for Decision Making. Harvard Business Review

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Creative Commons Licence
The Riddle of Online Resonance by Matthias Melcher and Jenny Mackness is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.

13 thoughts on “The Riddle of Online Resonance (first instalment)

  1. Heli Nurmi September 12, 2010 / 8:11 am

    Thanks, Jenny und Danke schön Matthias!

    I have been pondering these questions a lot and I am very interested about your text. It is challenging because similarities and sameness have meant the same to me, but not any more 🙂

    I see you as facilitators of the just beginning PLENK2010 course. I will refer to this when I write my first blog post for that course, today I suppose.

    I will write more later

  2. ctscho September 12, 2010 / 2:49 pm

    Hi Jenny and Matthias,

    A really interesting and refreshing approach to exploring connective understanding. I’m already wondering to what degree the concepts you introduce here overlap with explorations of learners’ intuitive understandings and the role or development of personal insight. And because so much of online communication is currently text-based, I’ve often wondered in my own learning to what degree language mastery (ability to select words with particular connotations, for example) might affect such resonance, particularly in the pre-responsive or non-reciprocal periods you identify. Very much looking forward to the next installments!


  3. Matthias Melcher September 12, 2010 / 7:36 pm

    Thanks Heli, I responded at your blog.
    Thanks Carmen. I think you are right that intuition and personal insight are neighboring concepts to ours. The connotations you mention are probably not well covered by our provisional term “beyond words”, but at least they are not really “contained” in the message content. And it would probably be incorrect to say they were “transported” by the message because transport suggests packing and unpacking, and not “inducing” second meanings. I don’t know what the communication theorists say about connotations, or maybe even the poetry theorists.


  4. jennymackness September 13, 2010 / 9:11 am

    Hi Carmen – many thanks for your comment and interest.

    You say:

    And because so much of online communication is currently text-based, I’ve often wondered in my own learning to what degree language mastery (ability to select words with particular connotations, for example) might affect such resonance, particularly in the pre-responsive or non-reciprocal periods you identify.

    …. and I have been thinking about this and I’m not sure that I have an answer for you.

    In our lengthy discussions over many months, Matthias and I came to the conclusion that resonance cannot be controlled and is unconscious. On the other hand there are things that can help ‘spark’ the resonance effect.

    At one point we discussed how poets communicate more than the words. Similarly we think that resonance generates more meaning than can be conveyed by words – so when you talk about the influence of language mastery on pre-responsive or non-reciprocal periods in a communication – then I think it would depend on how consciously this language mastery was used.

    Still thinking! Thanks for the thought-provoking comment.


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