When will we learn to do remote socializing?

When I was an undergrad, I would host discussion groups with the atheist student group. We’d basically just declare and describe a topic and let people shout out their thoughts one at a time. In retrospect, there are serious issues with this discussion structure.

The first problem is division. If you have twenty people, on average each person speaks one twentieth of the time. There’s some sort of ideal fraction of time that people would like to be speaking rather than listening, and that fraction is greater than 1/20. So even if the discussion structure works adequately for 10 people, it tends to break down at 20. This caps the size of the group, as meetings become less engaging the more people join.

The second problem is inequality. On average each person speaks one twentieth of the time, but the typical person speaks much less than that, and in practice the discussion is dominated a few loudmouths. And yes, the loudmouths are disproportionately men. The loudmouths find the discussion engaging, while most other people do not, and now you’ve selected a group of loudmouths who vie for attention while crowding everyone else out.

This is now the discussion structure adopted by practically every remote social event. I hate it so much.

There’s a pretty basic solution to the division problem: have multiple parallel discussions. More sophisticated student groups would have people break out into small discussion groups of 2-4 people. Although, I’ve never been much of a fan of the breakout groups either, perhaps because they felt artificial, and often we were given barely enough time to introduce ourselves to the strangers that we were forcibly grouped with.

Another more effective discussion structure, was the one we adopted after student group meetings: we’d go out to eat. Going out to eat involves sitting at a table, conversing with your neighbors, and sometimes moving around to talk to other people. You can listen in on conversations and decide if you want to jump in, or if you’d rather find another conversation. It’s amazing how people have mastered such a complex discussion structure, and do not have to be told at any point, “okay now break out into groups but also sometimes switch groups or create new groups.”

Zoom has some sort of breakout group feature, which I don’t have any experience with. I have heard that it has some limitations–only the host can control who is in each group. I think this suffers from similar problems to the structured breakout discussions of a student group. For a more organic discussion structure, I found an article explaining how to host “cocktail parties” on Zoom.

I like the cocktail party idea, but it’s such a hack that I don’t think it will become very common. People tend to just go with the default, without ever thinking about how to improve upon it.

Realistically, I think effective structures for remote socializing will only emerge when tech companies like Zoom create software to make them easily accessible. And I fear that these discussion structures will be cursed with corporate branding.


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