The Age of Boring Webinars

My mail inbox is deluged with all kinds of things usually. A looming assignment, a discount coupon from Myntra, a reminder for an event that I most certainly won’t attend — and on some lucky days, emails from my friends. I like sorting them out in neat labels: work, friends, spam, and important things. I try achieving a sense of orderliness that my life lacks by arranging and rearranging emails. I wonder though, how one can arrange a hundred emails that they get about the same thing — webinars. Dozens of them. Is it important? Is it work? Is it spam? I guess one can’t tell the difference anymore.

With ‘Zoom’ becoming a household verb from a noun, much like Google years ago, 2020 subsequently witnessed a rise in the number of webinars. However, it’ll be wrong to solely attribute the rise of webinars to the COVID-19 pandemic. A study noted that in 2019 alone, there was a rise of 47% average time in webcasts. In 2020, the number is only set to have increased.

Along with this rise in webinars, what Jeremy Bailenson, the founding director of the Virtual Human Interaction Lab at Stanford University, describes as “Zoom fatigue”, has set in.

It was interesting then that when I opened my inbox, I received an invitation for “a webinar on how to host exciting webinars”. I wonder though, if it is even plausible? ‘Webinar’ and ‘exciting’ have been so overused recently in juxtaposition that when now read together, they almost seem like a paradox – an oxymoron. “Exciting webinar”. No, please, more like “exiting, webinar!”

I, for one, don’t get excited anymore about the prospect of being another window, or worse, being relegated to the Q&A option.

However, it’s really not easy to discount the merits of webinars – especially at a time when there are not many alternatives. A webinar has been argued to contribute to the process of ‘democratisation of knowledge’ as a part of the larger digital revolution. At one’s disposal lies a world of knowledge – from business leaders, graduate schools, academicians, theatre artists and activists. All at once, delivered straight to your screen.

Also read: People Share Why They Quit Their Jobs During a Pandemic

Albeit, I wonder — does the interface of most webinars really enable this purported ‘democratisation of knowledge?’ Most webinars, by design and definition, have limited interaction with the speaker, and what one has to settle with is this tiny option to send questions that one chooses to answer at one’s discretion. In the process, the conversation after seminars with the speaker, the fumbling and nervousness of asking a question, and all too important interactions go missing. But most importantly, so do heated disagreements, and hence, the true democratisation of knowledge that lies in the kernel of those disagreements gets left behind. What we hear then is a tightly-controlled narrative and an account of the organiser in the name of ‘democratisation of knowledge’.

In this microcosm where you can no longer interact, interrupt or interject the speaker in between – it also becomes increasingly hard to concentrate. My friend and I have this running joke of “zooming out” of Zoom. In a study published in Journal of Experimental Psychology, it was concluded that when our brains predominantly rely on only verbal information for information, it becomes taxing to concentrate. Non-verbal cues such as facial expressions, gestures, posture, and the distance between the speaker that indicate mood and attitude are hard to catch, leading to more fatigue. At the end of the day, as I get tired of just sitting in one spot, I am scared to think that the webinar is here to stay.

However, despite any claims of merits of webinars, they aren’t close to replacing live seminars. This is especially important for India where around half of the country’s population still lacks access to the internet – yet another aspect wherein it fails the ‘democratisation of knowledge’. The very interface needs to be redesigned to make it more interactive and truly enable the place for opinions to clash and disrupt before it can even reach close to replacing live seminars.

Also, most importantly, in the light of Zoom fatigue, it’s yet to be seen how webinars really affect an audience that is growing tired of staying online all the time. As I write this, I get a reminder again for the ‘webinar on how to host exciting webinars’.

I only wish I could reply saying, “Don’t host one really until you really absolutely have to.”

That’s the real key to an exciting webinar!

Ridhima Manocha is a final year Media Studies student at Ashoka University and has authored the book, The Sun and Shadow.