Social and Emotional Interactions in Online Dispute Resolution

As online dispute resolution (ODR) becomes more common, we should expect ADR practitioners and academics to explore its potential risks and drawbacks. A common criticism relates to the shortcomings of technology-facilitated communication as it relates to emotion.

This criticism holds that ODR can’t support the same levels of social and emotional interactivity available through face-to-face (F2F) processes. A growing body of literature suggests ODR is somehow inferior and even potentially harmful in this regard.

ODR certainly can pose challenges for mediators accustomed to non-verbal cues like body language, facial expressions, or tone of voice in F2F sessions. But the broad rejection of ODR’s capacity to support the social and emotional aspects of conflict resolution misses some key points:

  1. ODR and F2F are, quite simply, different. The ‘better’ or ‘worse’ dynamic is unproductive and fails to reflect the creative and procedurally flexible ideals ADR was originally known for. In many cases, ODR processes don’t try to emulate F2F processes, seeking instead to create new potential, new techniques and new avenues to address unmet demand in the conflict resolution context.
  2. Technology is a socially rich medium that absolutely can ‘push our social buttons.’ Research shows we rely heavily (and subconsciously) on interpersonal social norms to guide our interactions online - even if we’re interacting only with a computer. We can become angry or jealous toward computers, and can be flattered by them too. The ADR community should broaden its perspectives and recognize that we do interact socially through technology – even if it’s different than F2F.
  3. People are good at making technology ‘work’ for them, even when it’s not used for the intended purpose. The internet was created by the US Military and universities for specific purposes, but we use it today for just about everything from banking, to dating, to sharing millions of cat videos on YouTube. People will make the internet work for ADR too. The F2F vs ODR dichotomy will be forgotten in the future.
  4. ODR’s perceived emotional shortcomings will constrain mediators more than users. At least one small study showed that where 72% of mediators found the lack of nonverbal cues to be a problem, 70% of users felt they were able to overcome the dynamic.
  5. ODR can offer benefits for managing social interactions. Different communication channels can make it easier to accommodate high conflict personalities. F2F won’t always be the preferred method.
  6. Sometimes, ‘good enough’ processes are best. We use Skype or text messaging because they are convenient, cheap and often the best ways to meet our communication needs. Even if ODR can’t replicate the emotional context of F2F, it can still be used appropriately for dispute resolution.

Looking ahead, technology will be used more and more for resolving our disputes, whether or not we agree that ODR is capable of handling social interactions and emotion. While it may be different than F2F, ODR nevertheless offers a range of benefits waiting to be discovered by the broader ADR community.


Darin ThompsonDarin Thompson is a lawyer with the Ministry of Justice in British Columbia, Canada. He currently serves as the Acting Legal Officer for the BC Civil Resolution Tribunal, a new, fully online tribunal that will begin operations in 2014, handling small claims and condominium disputes. He has helped to initiate multiple projects using online dispute resolution (ODR) and is a member of the Canadian delegation to the United Nations Working Group on ODR.

In 2014/15, Darin will be co-instructing new Legal Information Technology courses at two law Canadian law schools.

Darin also sits on the board of the Justice Education Society, a Vancouver-based organization that carries out public legal education and information activities, justice reform and capacity building programs in British Columbia and in several jurisdictions outside Canada.

Darin has BA and JD degrees from the University of Victoria and an LLM in Innovation, Technology & Law from the University of Edinburgh.