Face on/off

Why the camera should always be on during video conferences and online seminars

Hellenistic Theatrical Mask, 4th century BC

A couple of weeks ago, I published a posting on online teaching in times of covid-19. One of the more controversial points of the text was the question whether it is ok to enforce a cameras-on policy in video meetings. Is everyone in a video call obliged to show herself or himself? Should a moderator or a teacher enforce this rule?

Yes — I clearly think so. If you are running a class or heading a meeting, you can set the rules of the assembly. Traditional meetings have a code of conduct. However, as video conferencing is still fairly new, we need to establish — and sometimes enforce — rules for polite behaviour for online meetings. In my opinion, showing yourself on camera is one of them.

There are plenty of unwritten rules for etiquette and behaviour in a classroom or a meeting room. It’s ok to bring a coffee — but it is not ok to bring a tray with a warm lunch from the canteen (this happened). Sometimes the differences are subtle. I think it is acceptable if students type on their laptops, but I discourage the use of smart phones in my classes. This is a bit unreasonable as the students can idle away their time on both devices. However, my point is that etiquette is also relevant for online meetings. And it is your right as a moderator or as teacher to establish a protocol.

This is not a legal issue — at least not in Germany. I discussed the matter with a good friend who also happens to be a lawyer. There are no legal means to enforce this rule — but at the same time there are no leagal reasons to object to it either.

Showing yourself in a video call is a basic and essential rule for video meetings and seminars. It is perfectly all right if you don’t want everyone to peek into your room. In order to avoid this, you can either re-arrange your tech setup for a video call or use a nice image as a background. Please avoid animations or movies as a backdrop.

There is obviously much more to etiquette for online meetings. I won’t go into the details — but it is quite interesting to note that we can learn a lot from the gaming community.

Another point that was raised in the discussion is a general online meeting fatigue. Not every physical meeting is a rave — but virtual meetings seem to be even more tiresome. I believe that one of the reasons for this fatigue is that the participants of the meeting do not feel actively involved. Switching off your video camera makes this worse.

Participating in an online meeting is often very similar to watching YouTube or Netflix. After a while you feel like a passive consumer, drifting off to do other things like really watching YouTube or Netflix.

Keeping your video camera on is no guarantee for a great meeting. But if the other participants can see you, it is easier to engage with you. And I do believe that watching a mirror image of yourself in the context of other faces supports the notion that you are actually part of a social group. Seeing yourself is a subtle indicator that your are still in a live meeting.

Therefore, switching off the video leads to detachment and more passive behaviour. When all participants switch off their video, you might as well end the meeting or the seminar.

As a teacher or moderator, you always have to keep the participants involved in the discussion — especially so in online meetings. You have to be more proactive and more attentive. If someone is very quiet, bring them into the discussion. If students seem to drift off, ask them questions or request some feedback.

You cannot have the full attention of every participant all the time. However, if you allow the participants to switch off the video, morale and attention will deteriorate.

And — yes — there are exceptions. Large groups work different than small groups. You should get some privacy during a break. If you have really low bandwidth, switching off the video improves the connection. However, I cannot accept hardware issues. You can get a cheap webcam for 20 €. If you don’t have one or your old one is broken — get a new one or use your smart phone. If I teach you, I want to see you.

Professor for Interaction Design at FH Potsdam, co-director of Urban Complexity Lab | http://uclab.fh-potsdam.de | http://esono.com