Saturday, August 22, 2020

Visibility in online meetings

Photo by cottonbro from Pexels

What do you look at during all those video meetings? Many of us spend a lot of time watching ourselves and becoming very aware of what we look like on the screen. That's a major difference between physical and digital meetings; we become much more self-aware and concerned with our appearance and gestures. We are also unaware of who is watching us Since we can all choose gallery view or speaker view you never know who is watching you, even if you are not actively involved. Many people forget that they are visible and will behave in a less than focused manner. Some check out physically but are still digitally present: an empty chair, camera pointing at the ceiling etc. I imagine most of us have done this at least once. The point is that if your camera is on you should probably assume that someone is looking at you.

Then there are the participants who choose not to switch on their cameras. There are many reasons for this, such as poor connectivity and privacy concerns, but unless you can create a very strong sense of community and trust in a group you cannot expect everyone to want to be visible at all times. However, even if we accept this and understand why some people are wary of being constantly on show, this affects who we interact with in the session and how we value the participants. This is a fascinating topic that is described in a post by Autumn Caines, The Zoom gaze

She writes about the power dynamics of being visible and not being visible in video meetings. Visible participants can attract attention more easily (waving, physical hand up) and are more obviously engaged; even if they may be doing something else they are looking at their screen and camera. Invisible participants have difficulty attracting attention and have to rely on the chat to make a contribution. This is a problem for those with low bandwidth.

It is wonderful to give students the option of turning their cameras on or not but are there underlying power dynamics (unconscious, implicit, and unintended) of being seen that still create inequities in these environments? Are teachers unconsciously tuned in to faces, expressions, body language in such a way that privileges students who are privileged to have fast bandwidth, nice cameras, and good microphones? My gut tells me yes.

I have written before about the inequalities of hybrid webinars where the teacher has a studio audience as well as online participants. Here the on-site participants have direct contact with the teacher whilst the online group has to make significant efforts to be heard or seen at all. It seems that the division between visible and invisible participants in a completely online setting has a similar imbalance.

It is not just the lack of visibility that can lead to inequalities. Names are also important. A participant with camera on but a cryptic name will be accepted more than the combination of no camera and an anonymous name. After all the fuss about Zoombombing earlier this year people are naturally suspicious of participants with generic or nonsensical names and no video. Anonymity may be vital for vulnerable people but the risk of being taken as a potential spammer and being ejected from the meeting are high.

How can we try to address these inequalities? There is no clear answer to this but one aspect of online meetings that we need to develop is using different media and spaces so that everyone can find a channel for their voice. This means having parallel spaces for collaborative writing (collaborative documents, whiteboard, forum, chat etc) and including group work. It also means extending the discussion asynchronously so that there is a space for those who like to reflect first before they contribute. Maybe we should use the synchronous meeting time for input and inspiration and then allow participants to discuss and collaborate on their own terms, in their own online group discussion or as asynchronous discussions. Then gather everyone together again to examine the results. Focus on a task rather than visible online presence.

Monday, August 10, 2020

The lies are free

In theory the internet could give everyone access to all the knowledge of humankind. Access to information would be a basic human right and there would be structures to support this in terms of compensating those who create the content. However, that concept is only a dream since so much valuable content is locked away behind paywalls and copyright restrictions. We have the illusion of access to everything, but once you start digging you soon run up against the walls. 

Quality content requires skilled authors and time-consuming investigation, and that costs money. Thus we have tabloid newspapers, full of biased and misleading content, on sale for free or at a trivial cost (subsidised by a multi-billionaire), whilst quality journalism is forced to charge for its content in order to survive. If you want a more balanced view of the world based on scientific evidence rather than opinions you will often have to pay for it and often it is much harder to find than the vast quantities of lies and nonsense that is available for free and often turns up high on your search list. This is the topic of an excellent article by Nathan J Robinson in Current AffairsThe Truth Is Paywalled But The Lies Are Free
... it costs time and money to access a lot of true and important information, while a lot of bullshit is completely free.
Current Affairs is a magazine that offers investigative journalism but of course depends on subscriptions to survive. The revenues from web advertising can't cover the costs for such publications so an increasing number of quality news channels are forced to set up a paywall. This in turn reduces their ability to attract new readers. In the last few years, I have begun subscribing to several magazines and newspapers (including the printed versions) but there is a limit to the number I can afford to pay for. Some have simply disappeared from my view. There are, of course, exceptions to this in the form of all the independent bloggers and journalists who publish for free but they all have bills to pay and there is a limit on how long they can afford to continue working for no reward. It's hard to compete against "free".

In the academic world we have the major scientific journals who still dominate despite significant inroads from the open access movement. If you don't belong to an institution that can afford to pay the high subscription rates you cannot access the latest research. This is a major handicap for researchers from developing countries who cannot read the relevant research in their field. 

Robinson tries to imagine what the internet could be like if it was run for the common good rather than for profit. Just imagine this!
In fact, to see just how much human potential is being squandered by having knowledge dispensed by the “free market,” let us briefly picture what “totally democratic and accessible knowledge” would look like. Let’s imagine that instead of having to use privatized research services like Google Scholar and EBSCO, there was a single public search database containing every newspaper article, every magazine article, every academic journal article, every court record, every government document, every website, every piece of software, every film, song, photograph, television show, and video clip, and every book in existence.
That was indeed one of the visions put forward in the early days of the internet but then the corporations took over. The article argues that such a universal database is technically possible but some mechanism is needed to fund it and also to compensate the content producers. Taxation could be way of dealing with this in the same way as some countries offer free or cheap healthcare but at the same time paying the doctors and nurses. Content providers would be compensated according to how many people access their work. Utopian indeed, but sometimes we need to question the system we have. 
But we are working on it. We are a long way from the world in which all knowledge is equally accessible. Hopefully someday our patchwork of intentionally-inefficient libraries will turn into a free storehouse of humanity’s recorded knowledge and creativity. In the meantime, however, we need to focus on getting good and thoughtful material in as many hands as possible and breaking down the barriers we can.