Online meetings as skeuomorphs – the old pathologies imported, affordances not afforded (cyber)space

If you suck at designing and facilitating meatspace meetings, then – everything else being equal – you are probably going to suck big hairy dog’s balls at online meetings.

Is it just me? (1) Am I the only one who has been in several really painfully bad online meetings during this lockdown?  Where the organisers clearly have given NO THOUGHT to what could or should be different. They’ve just shifted their dismal “in real life” formats over to Zoom. And guess what, they’re still dismal! Hoodathunkit?  But as long as the invited guest speakers get to treat everyone as ego-fodder, as long as the punters can feel they were close to Wisdom, or that they’re not losing touch, then everyone seems happy.

It’s as if the opportunities of online spaces (I’ll come back to them) are being very very consciously ignored.  There’s something skeuomorphic – the online meetings consciously replicating/signalling their continuity with the old formats which, well have nostalgia and soothe value (if not use value).

Why?  Again, trying to think systematically rather than continuing the Fundamental Attribution Error of ascribing cowardice/laziness/stupidity.

  • Most organisers are not familiar with what online meetings might offer
  • Most organisers are not willing to take the risk of innovating at the best of times, and right now, it’s not the best of times. (insert rant about fear eating the soul, helmet fires yadda yadda).
  • Most organisers are under no selection pressure to DO BETTER.  Any old crap will do at the minute (insert rant about the smugosphere) because most punters have never had better, and would be reluctant to demand it in these times when everyone is (understandably and rightly) cutting other folks lots of slack.

Okay, now I have got my tokenistic and  entirely abstract compassion tokens sorted: this.

DO BETTER, YOU FUCKERS.

At the least

  • Ask yourself: why gather people together for an hour and spend the first third of that asking them to, in effect, watch a youtube together? Srsly.  Have your speakers pre-record and upload their initial statements. That way they are not speaking off the cuff, they can be kept to time. Tell everyone to watch the damn things before. Most will, some won’t.
  • Be concise and clear in your opening statements. There is no excuse for waffling, and the consequences for it are HIGHER online, imo.
  • Encourage people to use the ‘chat’ function.  That is what it is there for (affordances schmafordances). This is NOT like a meatspace meeting where the chattering will be disruptive.  It’s an online meeting. Only Connect, as that old English dude said.
  • If you are going to go into breakout groups, then have the instructions for this  – what it is you are expecting each group to do – on a slide.
  • For any reporting back, ask the groups to make a slide of their own, rather than verbal feedback. People can read faster than they can listen.
  • Think about having a googledoc to which people can properly add comments in real time, reading suggestions etc.  The “chat with everyone” function is okay, but it is inaccessible once the meeting is over.  You can edit/polish the googledoc, before the rest of the world sees it, to remove anything libellous/confusing etc.
  • DO A POSTMORTEM. Ask people who leave early to tell you why they did.  Have a mechanism for everyone to give anonymous feedback (the only kind worth collecting.)
  • ITERATE> INNOVATE> ALWAYS IN BETA>  THIS IS THE WORLD WIDE WEB, PEOPLE.
  • Oh, and if your organisation is named after someone super super SUPER cool, but unjustly obscure, then explain who they are. The world really does need to know.

 

Yes, I am going to “put up”.  The group I am involved in is going to start to do more regular online meetings.  We will get things wrong, obvs. But at least we will be trying to actually use the technology in less grotesquely inadequate ways than I’ve described above. FFS.

 

Footnotes

(1) That’s a semi-rhetorical question. I know very few people who share my vocal, vehement, vivid disdain for suboptimal (“shitty”) meetings.  There should be more, but most people seem to shrug their shoulders and say ‘this is the way it’s always been’.  While calling for fundamental immediate transformations of our polity and economy. Go figure.

On the tribal barriers to cat-belling

Think in systems, dammit.

When I am frustrated (i.e. always) with the “left” endlessly reheating and repeating the same things (“wasn’t  1970s social democracy great?”, “the main problem is we don’t have enough diverse voices” (1) ) through truly wretched online events that are every bit as stultifying and wrist-slashingly excruciating as their meatspace equivalents, I often – through laziness and stupidity – ascribe the failures of others to laziness or stupidity.

But think in systems, dammit.

If you WERE to say, for example

“part of the problem we need to think about is that our shopping list of the ways the world ‘should’ be won’t get us there, but that people can gain and maintain status simply by repeating this shopping list.  They get brownie points for doing so, because we are so keen to hear their soothing words, and they are our bosses, and we are, ultimately, wanting to be saved by bosses.  We are like the sheep in Animal Farm, hoping for a better kind of pig, while still incanting the all animals are equal thing.”

Well, three things would happen

a) you’d open yourself up to criticism for having done your own shopping-list incanting in the past (and people rarely really like to open themselves up, unless they are particularly neurotic), and the fatal question “well, why should we listen to YOU then?”

b) you’d be implicitly (explicitly) rebuking your chums, including probably the people who organised this event and invited you to be on the panel (so, this might be your last panel for a while or -checks notes – for fucking EVER.)

c) you’d be implicitly (explicitly) rebuking those in the audience for having taken false comfort in shopping lists in the past.  They won’t thank you for that condemnation. Fur monkey may have no milk, but she’s got fur, fur goodness sake.   Life under ecocidal capitalism is already quite uncomfortable enough without some wannabe whistle-blower adding to it.  So, the questions will be hostile, the invites to speak at other events will dry up, your books won’t get read, your tweets won’t get retweeted. Siberia beckons.

So far so banal.  If a culture doesn’t have homeo-dynamic mechanisms for keeping within certain parameters, it’s not really a culture is it? Throw in some (rightful) righteous indignation and cognitive limitations (Kahneman Thinking Fast blah blah) and you’ve sort of explained why the key question of ‘what do we need to do DIFFERENTLY so that we have a chance of getting a different result?’ rarely gets answered (though often – as at a recent terrible-content, good-format/facilitation Zoom – gets asked.)

Somehow though, this isn’t satisfying me.  We “ought” to be better at this. We are supposed to be the ones who can challenge power. But do we use up all our courage and cortex in spotting the obvious, and then hunker down?  Do we find new tin gods to worship, and then let them rule us?

Or is it just so damn hard to think of ways that the incredibly embedded/entrenched/tooled-up status quo (that is endlessly capable of adapting/defending itself – T1000, not T800) could be defeated, that we retreat into soothing lullabies and never face any real challenge from the audience to sing a different song?

I will try, for what it is worth, to

a) have more compassion for those with nothing to say who say it at great length and to relatively great acclaim

b) understand the dynamics/incentives that keep them in place, and keep them from actually trying to answer the ‘who will bell the cat?’ question

c) provide clear cat-belling ideas and then implement them as best I can at a local level

d) obey the Cocker Protocol, in these dark, nay, shitty days

 

Footnotes

(1) For the sake of clarity: I am not – of course –  disputing that we need more diverse voices. What I am disputing is that if they are saying the same banal and info-deficit things that the middle class white men are saying, we (collectively) are not actually any further ahead. And I would very much like us to be collectively further ahead.

Of activist self-care and the need to think in systems and #Freud #Darwin etc

I attended portions of a zoom seminar this morning on “activist self-care.” Portions not because I flounced (this, as those who know me will attest, does happen) but because of technological issues and my steam-powered laptop not letting me into the break-out groups.  So my “criticism” of the seminar (which was on the whole good!) is constrained by that – maybe they got to what I want to say, but it didn’t look that way.  Here’s my two cents on what was “wrong” and what “we” (who that?) would need to put it “right” (and that, is, of course, a process not an event).

The structure of the seminar – and therefore the intelligent and compassionate contributions from those attending – was very much coming from an individual ‘coping’ strategy – the world is in a terrible state, and those who want to help unterribilise it are going to experience frustration, excessive demands (from others) and themselves.

The contributions (therefore) centred very much on ‘taking time away’, ‘having a buddy’, ‘delegating’, ‘breaking tasks down’ .  These are ALL EXCELLENT AND ALL NECESSARY.

But also very inadequate. Because many people, for whatever reasons, can’t do those things. If they could, there’d be no need for these seminars.  And in any case, there is an elephant in the room – which I mentioned in the chat function, but nobody responded to it, at least in the time I was on the call. It’s this:

There are pathological cultures and assumptions within “activism”.  Until we recognise these, talk about them, and try to do something about them, then we are stuck with “coping strategies” akin to telling victims of domestic violence – “don’t do anything to set him off.”  We need to think in systems here.

So, let’s take the eminently suggestible suggestion of ‘delegate’ as a way in to what I mean.

You could look at this from a psychoanalytic point of view (and I would recommend that as a starting point). Why DON’T people delegate? Well, when you delegate you lose control.  And in this world, control – or the illusion of control – is something most of us struggle to have.  We want to believe that we are brave, dedicated people who can rise to the challenges of being citizens in the 21st century. We know that there are many many people in far worse situations than ourselves, and we want to believe in our own power to overcome our doubts, our fears (Samuel Johnson wrote brilliantly about this in an essay called “What Have Ye Done?“)

There’s also the status issue – if you are known in your group(s) as The Person Who Does That Thing (be it the website, the lobbying, the coach-booking, the facilitating), well, delegating will lessen your status, if the delegation succeeds. And if the delegation does NOT succeed (and it often does not), your status will take a hit, as will your morale. David Rovics kinda nails it in “I’m a better anarchist than you“.

So we can’t talk about delegation, really, until we talk about the culture within most activist groups that accountability for performance, and respect for expertise, is somehow Hierarchical, Capitalistic, Oppressive, Fascistic etc.  We all know people who are able to scoot along the edges (or even near the middle) of activist groups through charisma, optimism and other forms of social capital, but who either often don’t do what they said they would, or who do it badly (either through laziness/lack of focus or because they’re not actually quite as good at something as they, or others, think they are).  And this can persist  for… (checks notes) … indefinitely because the structures of accountability and performance assessment are essentially absent in activist groups.  Until you “fix” that, only somebody who doesn’t care about their own morale or status, or the achievement of group goals, is going to delegate. Such a person is probably not really an activist, no?

Related to this – the question of breaking down a task into its component parts was suggested. YES. Good idea. But again – who is going to be the person checking in that a sub-task was actually done, in the timescale that matters, to the level required? This is going to require project management, volunteer management, time management and diplomacy skills that most of us lack most of the time, and cannot often deploy when we are tired, frustrated, etc.

Ultimately, there are few if any selection pressures (this is where the Darwin from the blogpost’s comes in).  Individuals are aware that activist groups are so low on numbers, and lack accountability mechanisms that can be activated (I hesitate to type the word ‘enforced’) that a certain amount of free-riding is inevitable.

Now, the term ‘free-riding’ is of course offensive. It suggests that the “real” reason people don’t participate fully is that they have made a deliberate calculation that they will be able to get away with not doing what they are supposed to while still getting the benefits (of being in a group). In the vast majority of cases, I think, the reasons for under/non-performance are to be found in the group culture (lack of mentoring, lack of a specific job description, fear of outshining others etc) rather than in cold calculation.

 

So, unless groups are able to ask the following questions of themselves, and provide real answers, then the individual-coping-mechanisms stuff, while necessary, is ultimately totally insufficient.

  • Does our group have a clear sense of what its mission is in the next few months?
  • Is this mission realistic? (This can only be known when you know what resources – skills, knowledge, relationships, stability – your group has. Most groups don’t know this, so cannot answer this question!)
  • What are the mechanisms by which our group measures whether any given task is being done effectively and efficiently?
  • What are the support mechanisms in the group to help people who are struggling with the promise-delivery issue?
  • Can these mechanisms be accessed by everyone, or are they really only available to the popular people in the group?
  • What are the accountability mechanisms for dealing with persistent cases of under/non-performance (no, not an accusatory Star Chamber, an exercising in one-upmanship. But at some point, if someone is consistently not delivering and it is hurting the momentum, morale and credibility of the group, failure to take action is actually a decision to fail.)
  • What collective resilience,  collective morale maintenance mechanisms are in place for this group?  (this does NOT mean compulsory singalongs).

 

For what it is worth, the group I am part of – Climate Emergency Manchester – is developing or has developed answers to many of these questions. We’re working on an “Active Citizenship Toolkit” to help ourselves and others with these questions, and others.