Why online meetings work but not online conferences

Sitting through a “slip fielding meeting” this morning, I had an epiphany – on why office work and meetings have adjusted fairly well to online formats, but not conferences. It has to do with backchannel conversations.

In meetings where everyone is in the same room, there is naturally just one conversation. Everyone is speaking to everyone else at the same time. Unless the meeting is humongously large, it is considered rude for people to “cross talk” in the meeting, and hence there is just one conversation. Of course, in the last decade or so, people have taken to texting at meetings and stuff, but that is still small.

The advantage with moving this kind of a meeting online is that now crosstalk is fully legit, as long as you are doing it using text only. Anyway, everyone is sitting with their computers. All it takes is one simple alt-tab or command-tab, and you can chat away with others present in the meeting. In fact, this makes online meetings MORE efficient by increasing the information flow (since the main channel of large meetings are usually low throughput).

It is the other way round with conferences and events. In conferences and events, the whole point is backchannel conversation. Pretty much nobody is there to listen to the lectures or panel discussions anyways – all that most attendees want to do is to meet other attendees.

And off-line conferences are conveniently structured to enable such interaction. By having multiple parallel sessions, for example, it becomes legit to just stay out and talk to others. There is always a buzz in the corridors (one conference which was single-session-at-a-time only turned out to be bloody boring).

The other thing is that most backchannel and side channel conversations at conferences are between people who don’t yet know each other, and who are there for discovery. So you need to physically bump into someone to talk to them – you can’t randomly start a conversation with someone.

And this translates horribly to online. Online is great for backchannel and side channel conversations with people you already know well – like colleagues. When you don’t know most other people, side channel conversation is awkward. And the main channel content in conferences is largely useless anyway.

This is why it is important that conferences and seminars and other such events move to an offline format asap. For large work meetings we can continue online even after we’re all back at office.

PS: I’m firmly in the DJ D-Sol camp in terms of calling people back to work, at least to make them live in or close to the “home locations”. This way, you have the optionality to meet at short notice without planning, something that fully remote work makes it really hard.

Zoom in, zoom out

It was early on in the lockdown that the daughter participated in her first ever Zoom videoconference. It was an extended family call, with some 25 people across 9 or 10 households.

It was chaotic, to say the least. Family call meant there was no “moderation” of the sort you see in work calls (“mute yourself unless you’re speaking”, etc.). Each location had an entire family, so apart from talking on the call (which was chaotic with so many people anyways), people started talking among themselves. And that made it all the more chaotic.

Soon the daughter was shouting that it was getting too loud, and turned my computer volume down to the minimum (she’s figured out most of my computer controls in the last 2 months). After that, she lost interest and ran away.

A couple of weeks later, the wife was on a zoom call with a big group of her friends, and asked the daughter if she wanted to join. “I hate zoom, it’s too loud”, the daughter exclaimed and ran away.

Since then she has taken part in a couple of zoom calls, organised by her school. She sat with me once when I chatted with a (not very large) group of school friends. But I don’t think she particularly enjoys Zoom, or large video calls. And you need to remember that she is a “video call native“.

The early days of the lockdown were ripe times for people to turn into gurus, and make predictions with the hope that nobody would ever remember them in case they didn’t come through (I indulged in some of this as well). One that made the rounds was that group video calling would become much more popular and even replace group meetings (especially in the immediate aftermath of the pandemic).

I’m not so sure. While the rise of video calling has indeed given me an excuse to catch up “visually” with friends I haven’t seen in ages, I don’t see that much value from group video calls, after having participated in a few. The main problem is that there can, at a time, be only one channel of communication.

A few years back I’d written about the “anti two pizza rule” for organising parties, where I said that if you have a party, you should either have five or fewer guests, or ten or more (or something of the sort). The idea was that five or fewer can indeed have one coherent conversation without anyone being left out. Ten or more means the group naturally splits into multiple smaller groups, with each smaller group able to have conversations that add value to them.

In between (6-9 people) means it gets awkward – the group is too small to split, and too large to have one coherent conversation, and that makes for a bad party.

Now take that online. Because we have only one audio channel, there can only be one conversation for the entire group. This means that for a group of 10 or above, any “cross talk” needs to be necessarily broadcast, and that interferes with the main conversation of the group. So however large the group size of the online conversation, you can’t split the group. And the anti two pizza rule becomes “anti greater than or equal to two pizza rule”.

In other words, for an effective online conversation, you need to have four (or at max five) participants. Else you can risk the group getting unwieldy, some participants feeling left out or bored, or so much cross talk that nobody gets anything out of it.

So Zoom (or any other video chat app) is not going to replace any of our regular in-person communication media. It might to a small extent in the immediate wake of the pandemic, when people are afraid to meet large groups, but it will die out after that. OK, that is one more prediction from my side.

In related news, I swore off lecturing in Webinars some five years ago. Found it really stressful to lecture without the ability to look into the eyes of the “students”. I wonder if teachers worldwide who are being forced to lecture online because of the shut schools feel the way I do.