We’ve all been there in the last year: trapped in the gaze of a webcam while a speaker drones on and on or addressing a class full of black boxes wondering whether anyone was at the other end. Our pandemic dependence on videoconferencing accentuated the unique pains and pleasures of interacting with our fellow humans mediated by technology.
Digital environments, like their physical counterparts, can offer great opportunities but, in order for them to be sustainable, we need a system to define and understand how different online interactions actually work. I call this system the Four Stages of Zoom Enlightenment.
Stage I: Presentation (Substitution) This is by far the most common form of videoconferencing I’ve experienced over the last year. For the most part, it consists of an “expert” holding forth on some subject. The best of these resemble TEDtalks. The worst are long, rambling monologues punctuated by the occasional slide.
Presentations work at conferences because they are separated by hallway conversations and it is usually those conversations, not the presentations themselves, that we carry back with us. Informal conversations are also central to learning. Online, informal conversations almost never occur, leaving the presentation hanging in the air. There is also little sense in doing live presentations when they can be recorded and viewed at the convenience of the audience. On a conversational level, presentations reflect the primacy of the self. Almost all conversation emanates from the presenter and is directed at the audience.