Picking your nose on camera

A classic repost, more relevant today than ever:

In the January 28, 2005 Wall Street Journal author Jared Sandberg talked about some “technology assisted” embarrassments in remote meetings. For the most part he talks about conference calls. But what other challenges and opportunities do you get when communication is extended to other real-time technologies?

I have had the “pleasure” of seeing next-generation communications technology cause completely brand-new embarrassments. Jared, you think just hearing a toilet flush can interrupt a conference call? That is merely the beginning my friend!

Let’s look at the unintentional “fun” that video can add to online interactions. Not usually in a boardroom setting with a large room-based interactive video system, but more likely when using desktop interactive video and tools. (The social gaffes that can happen in video equipped boardrooms are usually mitigated by the fact that there are multiple people in each room and customary social cues are mostly available. Plus, you don’t as easily forget you are on camera in the formality of a boardroom setting. Not so on the videoconferencing equipped desktop computer used in your office or cubicle.)

The “intimacy” of one’s office or cubicle, just like that of an automobile, gives people false comfort to do things that they wouldn’t dare do in a boardroom. Let’s just say that I have seen more than one senior level executive blatantly “digitally probing his proboscis” in desktop-based online meetings.

After the real-time technology melts away, you can “forget” where you are. And this is a wonderfully double-edged sword. The nose-picking example is one bad edge of that sword. But on the positive edge, once the technology “melts away” the quick, interactive, and challenging aspects of an in-person class or meeting easily transfer online. In fact, there can actually be advantages.

For example, on the cultural front, I have personally found that when I am training non-native English speakers online the kinds of questions and challenges that appear in text chat along with the video and presentation are far deeper and more frequent than when I do the exact same training in person. To me, it is obvious that the comfort of distance and typed English make the remote trainees more open to discussion.

There are also technology set-up issues that can cause interruption. Sometimes people just don’t know how to prop up their PC’s webcam in a way that it aims at the right thing. Imagine that your camera is on your desk and your head is two feet higher than desk level. Once again, a kind of nose-cam can jump in (really I am not obsessed with noses).

Less offensive, but equally annoying is the lampcam – when the camera aims right into a light or a window so that we see not the participant, but a bright halo of light (better than the nose-cam, but still not business and classroom appropriate). And, when people are working at home, we often get the kid-cam, the cat-cam, the UPS-man-cam, or the “I am eating in front of the camera-cam.” Some can be cute and enhance the meeting, some can get you nauseous.

Now that I touched on a few gross things, let’s look at how this new desktop based collaboration software changes the dynamics of meetings and classes in ways most people wouldn’t think of until they actually participate.

In a “real classroom” you can’t, for the most part, instant message other students in the room to give them a running commentary  to agree or disagree with the teacher (or chat about football) without other people in the room knowing. With Internet conferencing you can. Again, a double-edged sword. On the upside a co-teacher or student can coach the presenter online in real-time when they are confusing or a student needs support from another to clarify a point. On the downside the students can chat about sports instead of focusing on math.

In a “real meeting” you can’t cover up the video and data windows with your e-mail, your other work, or even a video game and just “listen in the background”. With online “rich media conferencing” you can. This is great for boring unimportant meetings that don’t demand 100% of your attention. But this is bad if you are the presenter of some important and compelling stuff but you your students don’t have the focus and self-control to pay attention.

In a “real meeting” people can’t accidentally or purposefully log-in with a “handle” or “screen name” that makes it hard to quickly identify participants. All kinds of short-term havoc can be caused by this one.

One online class inefficiency is not apparent until you actually host a data only conference where one presenter sends out slides or spreadsheets and everyone else can just watch. As a presenter, you rarely know who is really paying attention because you can neither hear nor see the remote participants. And, if the audio portion is on a conference call, it is hard to determine who is speaking without interruption or setting up a proper ettiquette. Worse, as insinuated by Jared’s example, the presenter will choose to mute EVERYONE to keep order (and keep out hold music) – but this makes it harder to have an impromptu back-and-forth interaction.

Feedback mechanisms like text chat can actually distract you from your presentation. Mostly though, the dynamic of sitting at your desk and talking into a microphone while presenting (yet not hearing anyone else) can be disconcerting at least and debilitating at worst until you become practiced at it.

One of the largest reasons for multipoint video within these tools is not so much to see the instructor as a talking head, but for the instructor to see the students and the students to see each other – for class management and to introduce standard social cues into an online class.

For example, when I teach on online class that uses multipoint desktop video, I often “make the rounds” of each participant once in a while, perhaps with a question. Sometime, I find the camera focusing on an “empty seat” – and then I question whether I should give that participant the boot – or at least ask them where they are!

So, when you finally make the jump into real-time conferencing for teaching and staff meetings, keep some of these things in mind. And blow your nose before the conference starts!