From: holt <holt@MIT.EDU>
Connections: New Ways of Working in the Networked Organization

Sproull and Kiesler discuss some exceptional benefits that electronic meetings have over their real live "face-to-face" counterparts. In a series of experiments, they observe more equal participation of low-status members and greater diversity in brainstorming. On the downside, breakdown of online meetings due to flaming, and various chaos results from lessened emotional cues and bandwidth overcrowding.

With all their risks, most related to the difficulty in seeing and feeling for your audience, online meetings offer constructive opportunities that suggest real hope for improving the hated "office meeting". While "facetime" is essential when people need emotional bandwidth for trustbuilding, electronic meetings can open more channels for ideas (brainstorming/bullshitting) when participants can set aside their instinct to agreeably save face in front of their superiors --there is always embarrassment pressure in a "more public" meeting.

Clearly a flattening of the social pecking-order is possible --a much more democratic meeting involves those with slower social skills-- appropriate for certain flavors of open decision-making. The slowness of electronic meetings remains one of the biggest impediments to their wider use however. The much-sought benefits to collaboration can be reproduced online, even emotional "back channels" and turn-taking as discussed by Lynn Cherny, but the process requires exceptional human "antennae" from all those involved.

Clearly participants need more patient creative and listening skills than ever, both in avoiding flaming-like behavior and eventually tying together the multiplicity of parallel "threads" when consensus-building must happen. I hope I am wrong, but I suspect that the democratization observed in electronic meetings may often be a temporary artifact that comes about from the novelty and primitive anonymity afforded by version 1.0 text-based groupware. The authors did not make clear how much training and experience participants had prior to the online groupware experiments (they did make clear that users were operating 1st-generation software).

Despite my skepticism, anonymity games beyond simple "social deregulation" clearly have their place in bringing shy or low-prestige but creative individuals out of their shells: into the discussion. The key question in my mind is how to advance the state-of-the-art in partial anonymity to support more competent collective group communication. Finally, I agree with the authors that there is great hope in augmenting online interaction with face-to-face meetings and vice-versa, perhaps specializing the wild creative stages and the let's-make-up consensus, though in practise I often see one crowding the other completely.