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Why I Am Giving Up Online Conferences in 2022
Understanding the dynamics of Zoom fatigue
Understanding the dynamics of Zoom fatigue
Online conferences are now a cornerstone of the modern professional world. They allow us to engage with our audience in real time, build relationships and share knowledge in an efficient and cost-effective way. Online conferences have become so popular that many people say they are indispensable. They are not. At least, not for the vast majority of professionals who attend them.
This year I’m swearing off online professional conferences. Like many New Year’s resolution, I may fail in this endeavor, but after participating in several academic conferences online in the past few years, I simply do not have the bandwidth for most of these conferences.
This really has nothing to do with the technology or quality of presentations. Developers, like Whova, are offering numerous new apps that help organize many presentations, while also encouraging online engagement. I have seen some of the best presentations online, often because they are pre-recorded or well-rehearsed.
My reluctance to sign up for any new online conferences has more to do with personal space. Moving conferences online compresses or flattens these events into a two-dimensional space that does not fit into work-life balance.
Since we spend so much time at work, it seems wrong to me to add more work by attending these events online. Perhaps I just don’t have the desire to engage in a “conference-within-a-conference.” It’s like being in an airplane hangar and trying to talk to someone in another country. The conversations are difficult, if not impossible, sometimes.
I want to attend a live conference where I can walk up to someone and ask them questions, interact with the other attendees, and be part of the conversation. This is one of the great things about face-to-face conferences; you can actually engage with the presenter and the rest of the attendees in real time. Sadly, this is not as possible with most online conferences because we are not meeting in a truly shared space.
Shedding the Third Skin
In his article, “Understanding ‘Zoom Fatigue’: Theorizing Spatial Dynamics as Third Skins in Computer-Mediated Communication,” Robby Nadler argues that the conflation of space is the principal contributor to Zoom fatigue. To achieve this, he identifies three skins that provide context to our physical interactions … or three ways we feel each other’s presence in the physical world.
The first skin is our body. We interact with our face, posture, gestures, and movements.
The second skin is our clothes. Our clothes provide texture to our physical presence and help us provide a communicative context.
The third skin is the space we inhabit. Our physical presence or interaction does not exist outside of time or space, but is clothed by the spaces we interact. At a physical conference, we share this space in a conference hall or room. Nadler calls this mutual interstitial space (MUIS).
According to Nadler, what causes Zoom fatigue is the flattening of this third skin. Video conferencing gives us the illusion that we are sharing the space (the Zoom room, right?), but in reality we are all in our own third skins, or what Nadler calls personal interstitial space (PEIS).
Let’s say I have 20 attendees for my panel discussion in a Zoom room, that means we have 20 third skins or 20 personal spaces that no one else shares, depending on our location (bedroom, library, coffee shop, office, etc.). Each individual is trying to manage their own personal space outside the screen (or online space). This is one major contributor to Zoom fatigue.
Although it is nice to share a Zoom room, the lack of shared PEIS with other participants creates a lack of connection and community among the panelists. We are no longer in physical proximity with one another, which is essential to building and maintaining relationships and trust.
Dealing with Flat Conferences
This is a problem most of us have faced in online classes or business meetings. Usually, I am managing twin toddlers and barking dogs. Others might be managing a cat or traffic sounds. When these PEIS disrupt the Zoom meeting, we get a peek into these spaces, but mostly they exist outside the periphery of the screen.
Of course, all this applies to online conferences, but the third skin is a key element of professional conferences that are face-to-face. We ask participants to carve out days at a time and actually travel so that we can interact within a shared skin. Though we rarely consider conferences to be a kind of retreat, that is certainly a key component of building knowledge together within our niche disciplines and professions. But this is difficult to achieve in online spaces.
There is no way for us to interact with personal spaces online except by talking about them. But, that’s not very useful, right? So, what I try to do in these situations is focus on the content and ignore the third skins. But this isn’t always possible, especially when dealing with audiences who are geographically distant from me.
The last professional conference I attended was in October — the annual conference for the Association of Business Communication (ABC) — when I finally decided to avoid online conferences, especially those formally happening in physical spaces. As we got closer to the conference, my schedule filled up. I also didn’t bother canceling any classes because I’m not traveling. I ended up managing two schedules. The one in my third skin location and the one in the online conference location.
This was challenging, but it forced me to deal with how I manage my personal and virtual space together, which is a good thing. I actually had to pay attention to these spaces and learn something useful. It would be great if we could somehow make all our online conferences more like our face-to-face conferences. But that’s not realistic. Not yet anyway. There are some things we can do though, if we are strategic and intentional.
Dealing with Online Conferences
Despite my New Year’s resolution, we need to accept that flat online conferences are here to stay. They are a cheap and easy solution to involving more attendees, especially during challenges like the COVID-19 pandemic… or even just dwindling travel funds. However, they also have a major downside: Online conferences flatten our spaces (or third skins) into one tangled mess. If we don’t do something about it, we are going to experience an epidemic of Zoom fatigue. If possible, we need to create more shared PEIS. If I must attend an online conference this year, I will:
Carve out time by blocking off my schedule.
Make a point to ask questions both as a viewer and a presenter … even if it is in the chat.
Slow down the presentation so all of us can take a breather and connect with one another.
Make sure my presentation is shorter than the allotted time. This allows for technical issues, as well as interaction.
Share something real about my life and the lives of the attendees. Something that creates a “third skin” connection.
At my most recent presentation for ABC, I found it difficult to truly be present. Too many things were going on around me… and most likely around everyone else. All the participants were from different parts of the world. We had never met each other before. We weren’t even in the same building. Yet, they were sitting in their third skins (or PEIS) watching me present. They didn’t have any idea how I was going to make this content relevant to them. It was a challenge to bring this content to life.
So, I slowed down the presentation and asked them to tell me about their own lives. Several people shared an experience or insight that applied to our topic. By the end of the session, everyone was on the same page, and we could move forward with the program. The key to making this work is to create a shared experience among the participants. This doesn’t happen automatically in online environments, but there are ways to create this type of connection.
This mindset is more like a workshop than a presentation. Small workshop-styled conferences often provide more time to flesh out a virtual “third skin”. In fact, these are more like webinars than conferences… a genre I’ve thoroughly enjoyed throughout the pandemic.
These webinars have been great because there was always time to connect; it wasn’t just about delivering information. We can ask questions as a group and make sure everyone gets heard. We also share our thoughts and feelings about each other. It is a unique opportunity to get to know one another differently. We can see what others are doing, what they are interested in, and how they are dealing with things. It is a powerful way to build a shared virtual space through interaction.
The key to creating this kind of connection is to slow down. Take breaks during the presentation. Ask questions about the content. Make sure all the participants have time to speak and share their thoughts and feelings. This allows for more connection.
Online conferences are cool. But they just don’t work for me anymore. But if I do break this New Year’s resolution, I may just pretend that the online conference is physical. In other words, I will cancel classes, schedule no meetings, turn off email, and get extra childcare for my twins. If that happens, it better be a damn good conference!
Understanding "Zoom fatigue": Theorizing spatial dynamics as third skins in computer-mediated…
Robby Nadler is the Director of Academic, Professional, and Technical Graduate Writing Development and faculty at UC…www.sciencedirect.com