Webinars Are No Substitutes for the Real Thing

Web gatherings cannot provide for the kind of networking that occurs on the sidelines – which is often of more value to participants than the actual discussions.

Amongst the many changes that will become evident in the post-COVID-19 world will be a shift in the style and form of public discourse. COVID-19 has already strengthened the trend of using social media and the internet for communication that had emerged.

The lockdown and the subsequent work from home (WFH) phenomenon it has entailed, has led to much greater use of group communication tools like WhatsApp, Webex, Skype and Zoom, especially in business circles, for meetings and discussions. Now, dictated by the need for social distancing, even academic and civil society circles have resorted to using these tools for intellectual discourse. In the future, virtual, instead of actual, discourse is likely to be the norm rather than the exception. But is this a step in the right direction?

Before the lockdown, seminars, meetings, workshops and conferences comprised of a flourishing industry. Though it is unlikely that anyone had calculated the enormous amounts spent on logistics, especially for international events – like hiring halls, making accommodation and travel arrangements, hospitality for participants and expenses incurred on accessories like folders, flowers, presentation equipment, honorariums or presents for guest speakers – it is likely to have been substantial.

In terms of the desired objectives, the outcomes may not have always justified the cost. But apart from the airing and dissemination of new ideas and concepts, there were other collateral benefits. Such events not only allowed for networking and peer exchange of ideas and chatter on the sidelines but also gave the participants a chance to travel and get a brief respite from work routines.

International events were the most keenly looked forward to. Now COVID-19 has brought a halt to the entire chain of events. Forget international events, even domestic gatherings are unlikely to take place anytime soon, and every organisation is likely to continue with the trend of organising webinars and virtual conferences instead of actual ones even after the situation returns to normal.

Also read: The Real and the Virtual in the Post-Coronavirus World

The benefits in terms of cost are obvious, especially in the academic and civil society world, with most organisations strapped for funds. There are also benefits to the environment from the lower carbon footprint of reduced travel. But is there also a downside?

Representative image of a conference hall. Photo: Flickr/UNICEF Ethiopia CC BY NC ND 2.0

One of these is that virtual conferences are heavily dependent on the availability and access to efficient technology, which isn’t entirely feasible in India or in several other developing countries. Most of us are familiar with the “Hello? Hello, can you hear me?” syndrome, with sudden cut-outs, or the inability to join a call or joining a group conversation later, all of which disrupt the flow of discussions.

But even if technology evolves to make it a more efficient means of communication, web conversations are definitely more difficult to coordinate and to ensure smooth discussions. I, and others like me, find the discussions less stimulating and satisfying. Even with everything flowing smoothly, the inability to see the body language of speakers and their listeners in the way we can in actual meetings limits the value of the interaction.

Moreover, unlike discourses in real-time, web gatherings do not provide for the level networking and in-depth discussions that occur on the sidelines, and which very often are of more value to the participants than the actual discussions.

While international gatherings are undoubtedly costly, there are intangible benefits attached to them as well. They allow participants to understand, appreciate or acquire more tolerance for other cultures and societies and learn from them about non-discourse related matters.

Also read: Schools Must Ensure That Moving Online Won’t Disadvantage Children With Special Needs

For all these reasons, while the post-COVID-19 world will undoubtedly see a greater reliance on the web for communication and discourse, one hopes that it will not grind to an absolute halt in-person public discourse as we know it.  After all, engaging with Plato and Socrates may not have been the same had they conversed on the internet!

Pushpa Sundar is the author of Giving With A Thousand Hands: The Changing Face of Indian Philanthropy.