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What's Lost When a Meeting Goes Virtual 96

nbauman writes "This summer, NASA's Lunar Science Forum became the largest scientific gathering to embrace the new world of cyber meetings. The experience drew mixed reviews, according to a report in Science magazine. Mihály Horányi, who has been a regular, sat down at his computer at 1:45 p.m. on the first day of the conference and began talking into a webcam perched above the screen. 'Last year it was a performance. This year it meant staring at myself, being annoyed that I kept leaning in and out of the picture, and thinking, "Boy, am I getting old."' He and other participants say the virtual conference was a pale imitation of the real thing. At previous forums, 'You see your friends, you ask about their kids, and then the discussion flows into the science.' He participated much less this year, 2 hours a day. In addition to the physical challenge of sitting at one's computer for hours on end, participants say that their day jobs competed for their attention. 150 to 200 people "attended" at any one time. Even without distractions, the quality of the interaction was much lower than in person. 'I received a handful of short comments [from my talk] and had maybe one e-mail exchange,' Horányi recalls. One scientist who didn't present this year—and who listened to only one talk after the fact—said that he much prefers an in-person meeting because 'you get a much better sense of how the audience is reacting to what you're saying, especially any negative feedback.'"
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What's Lost When a Meeting Goes Virtual

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  • There was one perk (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday October 14, 2013 @12:42PM (#45122857)

    After the second day's talks were over we got to watch Georges Méliès's A Trip to the Moon.

    The griping about gossip being more important than the presentation is very real: a lot of science is the result of serendipitous conversations and meetings at conferences.

  • The same thing happens with conference calls. Adding video doesn't change the fact that you aren't in the same room as the other people. I don't see this working all that well until we get holodecks or something like that.

    • Re:Not surprised (Score:4, Insightful)

      by bob_super ( 3391281 ) on Monday October 14, 2013 @12:55PM (#45123045)

      A lot of real issues at tech standard meetings get solved in the corridor. It's really hard to get a real-time compromise that way in a virtual setting.

      I call dead presidents by their first names, before they get into my pants

    • Re:Not surprised (Score:5, Insightful)

      by Trepidity ( 597 ) <delirium-slashdot.hackish@org> on Monday October 14, 2013 @01:17PM (#45123315)

      If you're trying to recreate a physical meeting, I agree. But it's quite possible to have productive virtual meetings if people adapt to working in a manner suited to the medium. I have a regular group of collaborators who I sometimes meet with in person, and sometimes meet with on IRC. The two kinds of meetings are both productive, real meetings, but with different strengths and weaknesses. However it works because we're all familiar with IRC and how to use it productively, rather than trying to shoehorn some other communication style into it.

      • by GNious ( 953874 )

        I think I can confirm this.

        We have some team-members, who can collaborate quite well via text, exchange ideas and make suggestions, but we also have 1 team-member who cannot work via text at all, and 1 who has issues when working via phone/concalls. Personally, I prefer face-2-face, but also painfully aware that I fail at interacting socially at these types of events.
        It is very much about the people's ability to use the medium, whether that medium is IRC/Chat, Phone, webcams or in-person attendance.

  • by mbone ( 558574 ) on Monday October 14, 2013 @12:46PM (#45122931)

    I have done a number of meetings remotely, and it is just not the same (nor is it better).

    Of course, it is cheaper, and if it is a question of attending remotely, or not at all, I go remotely.

    It is a much better experience with immersive full room telepresence, but part of the reason for that is that you actually have to go to a telepresence unit so that, even if you are just down the hall, you are much more focused on the meeting.

    • I do such meetings all the time. 1-4 1 hour meetings per day, on LiveMeeting, each with a specific agenda.

      1) They get the job done
      2) They are not a replacement for face to face meetings

      The point is that they are cheap and easy to set up. No one has to get on a plane.

      What online meetings are not is conferences. You can't go to 1-4 conferences a day.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    High fives and after lunch farts.

    • by gewalker ( 57809 )

      I won't be missing High fices and after lunch farts, but the occasional doughnut was ok by me.

  • The bar meetings (Score:4, Interesting)

    by i.r.id10t ( 595143 ) on Monday October 14, 2013 @12:54PM (#45123029)

    The bar meetings and such are very important parts of conferences or any gathering of folks who only know each other thru publishing, mailing lists, etc. or even various forums like slashdot and fark.

    Aside from the obvious, it is great to put faces to names you only know from mailing lists, etc. as well as having real time discussions. The value of a meat space meet up is very high, and to have your employer cover part or all of the costs is even better.

    • by blue trane ( 110704 ) on Monday October 14, 2013 @01:05PM (#45123159) Homepage Journal

      I think these scientists lack imagination. You can interact with people through forums, where there are no time constraints on gathering together at one time. And you can still ask about kids, only it looks more stupid in print. Because it is.

      • by mrsquid0 ( 1335303 ) on Monday October 14, 2013 @01:16PM (#45123305) Homepage

        Real life does not work that way. In the real world social cues and conventions are important. A face-to-face conversation follows a very different arc than a similar online chat does. Both have their uses, but one cannot replace the other.

        • "Never write if you can speak; never speak if you can nod; never nod if you can wink."
      • by Trepidity ( 597 )

        I could be imagining things, but I think there's actually a slight decrease in ability to carry on these kinds of discussions than there was a half-generation ago. You could assume that most computer scientists in the '80s and '90s had basic ability to use a listserv and carry on a conversation suited to the medium. I think that is less true now: many computer scientists in 2013 have absolutely no idea how to carry on a productive text-based discussion.

    • I personally don't think cyber anything is as effective as face to face or in person presence. However where appropriate, sure they can fill a gap. Like when constantly sending employees to meetings all over the country/world is not practical. But if you have people doing that all the time you are doing something wrong... i.e. why are you locating team members or people who interact a lot in different cities?

      Anyway, virtual conferences (and TFA is about a conference not a meeting) might end up being the onl

  • by Anonymous Coward

    The story title talks about meetings.
    The story is about some kind of conference.
    At work we use Video rooms for meetings all the time and it works perfectly fine.
    You don't sit behind your shitty web cam.
    You have a giant screen, and a good view of everyone in the other room.
    The point of a conference is never the content.
    Never. Never.
    The entire point of conferences is meeting people, networking, and discussing things face to face with your peers.
    The content of the presentations is just there to give you someth

    • Re:Stupid title (Score:5, Insightful)

      by Antipater ( 2053064 ) on Monday October 14, 2013 @01:09PM (#45123219)

      Came here to post exactly this.

      I have a cyber-meeting every Wednesday morning with folks across the pond. Attendance is 4-12 people. There is no lack of idle chitchat or constructive feedback, or any of the other problems mentioned here.

      TFA takes a forum, conference, seminar, or something like that, calls it a "meeting" when it's clearly not, and tries to shoehorn all cyber-meetings into having the same problems that the conference did. Overall, just shitty reporting trying to make a point that doesn't mesh with reality.

      • by houghi ( 78078 )

        I have seen a lot of shitty meetings where there was no follow up, no agenda, no minutes.
        I have seen people trown out of meetings, because they could not say what they were doing there.
        I have seen meeting that were extremely functional in duration and information and outcome. I have seen ones that were extremely non-functional in that nobody understood what just happened.

        It always depended on who was leading the meeting in what manner.

        I think most companies to do invest enough in how to hold meetings. What

      • by Yakasha ( 42321 )

        TFA takes a forum, conference, seminar, or something like that, calls it a "meeting" when it's clearly not, and tries to shoehorn all cyber-meetings into having the same problems that the conference did. Overall, just shitty reporting trying to make a point that doesn't mesh with reality.

        Did you miss this part?

        Institute officials tried to cushion the shock by preserving the forum's usual format. But instead of welcoming some 500 scientists to the Ames campus, the hosts invited participants to log on each day, from 8:30 a.m. to 3 p.m. Pacific time. In addition to the scientific talks, the forum included virtual poster sessions with an introductory video or audio from the author and a chat window to submit questions and get feedback. Participants were also encouraged to create virtual "hubs" at home to facilitate interactions. The forum even offered a virtual version of its traditional 1-day mini meeting for graduate students and postdocs.

        The seminar included numerous smaller meetings, presumably some of those with even few people than you normally have in yours. While this all stemmed from the conference of 500 individuals, can't you see the similarity to a 500-person company where near everybody works from home?

        One of the quotes from the article

        you get a much better sense of how the audience is reacting to what you're saying, especially any negative feedback

        falls perfectly in line with what I remember from my sociology studies and the lack of emotion inspired inflection in most online writing. Personal connections with people

  • This reminds me of a previous discussion [slashdot.org] on slashdot about congress telecommuting.

    • by sconeu ( 64226 ) on Monday October 14, 2013 @01:08PM (#45123211) Homepage Journal

      Can we have Congress telecommute, and then cut off their internet?

      • I think Congress should have to telecommute over Internet connections that represent the country's median connection speed for people who make minimum wage.

      • Can we have Congress telecommute, and then cut off their internet?

        They are already not communicating, I don't think we want to make it worse. I think a better solution is to put them in a room, no phones, no internet, no TV cameras and tell them they get out after a solution is agreed on.

        • I think a better solution is to put them in a room, no phones, no internet, no TV cameras and tell them they get out after a solution is agreed on.

          Even better would be to make sure there's no food or water in the room either, and no bathrooms to boot. Finally, the room should be sealed airtight, with no ventilation system at all.

  • I know it's not fashionable these days, but I found many of the conferences in Second Life to be almost as productive as RL versions and way more productive than video chat, etc... It's too bad that that platform lost focus and didn't continue to evolve. :(

    • I think you are making the point that a richer Virtual Reality environment can bring one closer to, or perhaps even exceed, the experience and benefits of real-life meetings. I agree in theory.

      At this time it seems that the number of things that a virtual meeting has over a person-to-person or physical meeting are limited, and apparently less in quantity or quality than physical meetings (I will not enumerate them #TODO two-column pro-con list of current virtual vs. physical meetings).

      I think there is t

    • by pmontra ( 738736 )

      SL was basically a 3D chat where makers could build stuff to make the environment beautiful. Unfortunately for them Facebook got really big worldwide the year after SL go on the media and took over all the mindshare. Fb is much more easier and convenient than SL for chatting and gossiping. Most people moved on and SL slowly became an empty shell. I read somewhere that it did 1 million unique logins per month in 2012 but that's nothing compared to fb, where people spend their time now.

      That said, SL was able

  • This isn't merely a technological barrier but the wrong tool for the job. It sounds like the traditional in-person format is poorly translated into this technology, sure. But that doesn't mean technology is the problem. It probably means the meeting itself is trying to force its traditionally square peg into a round, digital hole.

  • by fermion ( 181285 ) on Monday October 14, 2013 @01:02PM (#45123133) Homepage Journal
    I think the problem here is not that meetings are virtual, but that large gatherings are being held with virtual meeting.

    There is a benefit to large meetings. But clearly the limitations that mandate large concise time intense meetings do not exist in the virtual world. There is no reason to hold 50 presentations in a day and then have attendees select their favorite 5 which means the get to attend 15-20 over the week. Rather 200 presentations can be held over a month, and one can drop in for an hour when they are interesting.

    This would also free up conferences for what they are best. Provided unstructured interaction between professionals. Honestly, too many conferences are so structured that I feel like they are made for elementary school students, or laborers who bill by the hour.

    If the value of a conference is the interaction, then lets pay people to go to Hawaii for a week and interact, and not cover the real purpose with these fake structured meetings.

    • by ebno-10db ( 1459097 ) on Monday October 14, 2013 @01:10PM (#45123237)

      Exactly. This a conference, not a meeting. Big difference. A productive meeting should last no more than an hour, and involve less than a dozen people. A conference involves hundreds of people over several days.

      I attend virtual meetings all the time, and don't find them any less productive than face-to-face. I do find, for reasons I've never quite figured out, that having met my colleagues face-to-face at some point makes collaboration go much more smoothly. But it only has to happen once or twice, maybe repeated once or twice a year. That's the sort of thing that happens at a conference. The rest of the time colleagues and collaborators can send email and have phone calls (desk top sharing can be helpful, but video I find useless).

      • by pz ( 113803 )

        Terminology. Seems like the parent poster and a lot of other respondents are picking apart the use of the word "meeting" when used as a synonym for scientific conference. Frankly, I've never seen anyone do that before with such misdirected certainty. The OP clearly shows that this is a scientific meeting ("NASA's Lunar Science Forum became the largest scientific gathering..."). In my neck of the world, we have 35,000 people scientific meetings that are also called conferences and even congresses. The sm

  • An audience reacts largely to your performance, not the material.

    Is the point of these gatherings entertainment or communication? I see people complaining about not being entertained...

    • by mjr167 ( 2477430 ) on Monday October 14, 2013 @01:19PM (#45123353)

      If the audience is confused by your material, you will see it. If they are disturbed, interested, bored etc.

      By noticing how the audience reacts you can tailor your 'performance' for the audience. For example if the audience is more familiar with your material than you originally thought you can gloss over the background. If they are not as versed as you thought you can provide more details.

      You can also change your terminology. We have discovered that the terms we use when talking about our field are sometimes different than what other people use and there is no one standard. For that reason it is important to make sure we are all using the same words and assigning the same meaning to them. This can be difficult without knowing which terminology set the audience is using.

    • Is the point of these gatherings entertainment or communication? I see people complaining about not being entertained...

      In an academic conference the purpose is entertainment. The purpose is to get people excited by your work, and want to know more about it. True, you want to communicate the reasons your work is important, and what is great about your work. But the main goal is to get the audience to go home and read your full paper. The paper is the communication medium. The presentation is more about selling the paper.

    • by d'baba ( 1134261 )
      "Anyone who tries to make a distinction between education and entertainment doesn't know the first thing about either." - Marshall Mcluhan
  • by Kwyj1b0 ( 2757125 ) on Monday October 14, 2013 @01:10PM (#45123239)

    "The value is in the halls, not in the presentations" - this was a comment in an article on academic conferences (Let there be stoning! [wwu.edu], pdf link). Unfortunately, the article hits the nail on the head - most academic talks are atrocious.

    And mingling in the halls is still a human activity - you really don't like to do it virtually. It's like going to a virtual bar with your friends. Even if you have the best cocktail at home, the crowd, the sounds, etc. all play a role in keeping you in the mood.

    The only advantage I see is in reducing some of the ridiculous conference registration rates I have seen (I'm looking at you IEEE - student registration of $400?). But I don't expect this to take off.

  • by koan ( 80826 )

    "the physical challenge of sitting at one's computer for hours"

    Really? You still haven't figured out how to do that without fatigue?

    • by Lumpy ( 12016 )

      This is slashdot, where a 15 inch laptop is HUGE and insanely heavy.

      • by koan ( 80826 )

        But doesn't have the Trusted Computing chips, compromised BIOS and other BS, and still runs Linux like a charm.

  • by Lumpy ( 12016 ) on Monday October 14, 2013 @01:18PM (#45123327) Homepage

    Very large companies have been doing teleconferencing for years. Many have been doing weekly video conferences via Tandberg VC systems for a decade successfully.

    Honestly, there is ZERO reason to force everyone to drive to one location for a conference except for the drinking and dining on the company dime afterwards.

    • by MobyDisk ( 75490 )

      And those very large companies are seeing the productivity drain. I worked at a company that did that, and I won't do it again. It is too easy for people to go AFK for a long period of time but appear to be working. You get more and more vague status reports. It is really hard to work on a design, or to do pair programming. It's not the same level of engagement.

      Ever watch a presentation or a training video with someone sitting next to you? You probably whisper to each other, point things out, ask ques

      • by MobyDisk ( 75490 )

        Just to clarify: The company I refer to was going teleconferencing for development, not just meetings. Hence the part about working on a design.

      • by Lumpy ( 12016 )

        " you can't bend down to whisper a question, "

        Well typically I dont bend down as most of my co-workers are the same height as me. and I can , It's called sending a SMS or IM chat message and we do it all the time on Video conference calls.

        Trading a glance except for a smirk to act like a 12 year old is not that useful when we can be lewd and crude in the SMS messages.

    • Honestly, there is ZERO reason to force everyone to drive to one location for a conference except for the drinking and dining on the company dime afterwards.

      I disagree. Strongly.

      My company (Google) uses videoconferencing extensively; every conference room is a video conference room with high-quality screens and cameras, and every meeting that involves people in multiple sites is a video conference. The VC system (which is the same tech in Google Hangouts, er, Video Chats) integrates with the calendaring and room booking system so everything gets linked up automatically. Anyone can project their screen to the VC with a few keystrokes. The result is extremely p

  • by jxander ( 2605655 ) on Monday October 14, 2013 @01:30PM (#45123455)

    The real problem is the attitude that we MUST decide which is best, and shun the failure of the other

    Each have pros and cons : Virtual meetings are much cheaper, easier to setup on the fly, and are more malleable in size; able to accommodate two people without bogarting a conference room, or expandable beyond the number of bodies that can physically fit into a single conference room. Meanwhile, meatspace meetings must be setup months in advance to ensure everyone can make it, require a lot more expenses, potential arguments over the proper location, plus all of the potential pitfalls of travel (lost luggage, delayed/canceled flights, outdated GPS directions sending you to the wrong place, etc.)

    But as previously discussed, actual human interaction has a LOT more potential to engender real ideas and changes. It allows us to better know our colleagues and understand each other. If a buddy of mine tells me that I dun goofed, I'm a lot more likely to take an honest look at my work and try to fix the problem than if I had received the same message from some random stranger on the other side of the country, to whom I've never before spoken. Maybe that's a problem on my part, but I'm certainly not the only one (as I've been the random stranger trying to correct someone else, only to receive a "Who the fuck are you" response.)

    What needs to happen is utilizing both systems to their strengths. If you're a part of a big project, encompassing hundreds of workers across several geographical locations, and spanning several years, start with a big in-person conference. Make sure everyone knows their peers from different sectors, understands what roles everyone fills, how they operate, etc. Give it 2-3 days, include some after-hours meetups, and get things started right. Schedule these annually (or biannually) to introduce new team members, work through any major sticking points, and keep things flowing well. In between those, use virtual meetings for weekly status meetings, or 1 on 1 discussion between engineers at different locations.

  • ADD (Score:5, Funny)

    by Bengie ( 1121981 ) on Monday October 14, 2013 @01:43PM (#45123597)
    I get too distracted wondering if anyone else is not wearing any pants.
  • by nospam007 ( 722110 ) * on Monday October 14, 2013 @01:47PM (#45123623)

    On a real meeting, you fly 1. Class with your misstress, you are away from the wife and the meeting itself is in 3D.

    A pale comparision, indeed.

  • Well the answer to your face going out of frame is a picture in front of the camera. I could alternate between a normal picture, your head floating in space, frogs, (for this time of year) Jack-o-Lantern. I bet unless you are talking, no one will ever notice.
    I thought a conference was an excuse to meet in the hallways and for beer later. Ever been to a Gordon Research Conf? The sessions are just a opening of ideas to talk about later.
  • I dont know if I trust an online conference with them
  • I've had to do it on a few different jobs, where I was hired by a distant company to provide support for a customer in my area. For them I telecommuted for meetings etc.

    I think one point that's been missed so far is that you only have a limited path of communication. It's generally one person talking to one other person. Interrupting may be rude but sometimes it's necessary, especially when you have people that ramble or that are being unproductive by repeating the same things over and over. It also giv

  • ...when space travel is common they will be the main "meeting" method.

  • I have a mail filter that dumps anything with "Webinar" in the title to the spam folder. Most of them are infomercials. They're invariably too long for the information contained.

    This, in fact, is the big problem with "online education" - no post production cutting.

  • So what is the best system for multiparty cyber meetings?

  • Humans are social creatures so there is often business value in spending some money to allow people to socialize, hang out, and eat and drink together. That's where face to face meetings are irreplaceable.

    However, if the work is well understood and there aren't personality conflicts that need to be worked out and team cooperation to be built, then teleconferencing is much more effective. In person meetings and whiteboards facilitate "winging it" whereas teleconferencing (I mean with screens sharing, not jus

  • Misleading Title. Should be: What's Lost When a Conference Goes Virtual. Nothing of value is lost during a meeting because meetings are near worthless!
  • body language is very important. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IqqiDw58NSE [youtube.com]

  • Like all the new people who were able to attend because they could still care for those children you were going to ask about. I think the solution is BETTER, multi camera, high resolution video conferencing tools, not crawling back into a cave.

  • What's missing? Usually, my pants!

  • What this all means is that you can't get laid at a virtual conference. And for a lot of the attendees, they don't have a lot of other chances.

The next person to mention spaghetti stacks to me is going to have his head knocked off. -- Bill Conrad