Behaviour in virtual vs physical worlds: the Handforth example

This article pertains to the video which went viral in the last week about an online meeting of the Handforth parish council. Given the last (almost) year of life in the UK has largely been conducted over online video meetings we have had some fascinating insights into both the technical challenges, security challenges and social challenges of moving so many of our activities online.

I am sure the internet is heaving with opinion pieces on this council meeting. Who was actually in charge? Was it right these people were kicked out of a meeting? Should this video have been shared at all? Are there better ways to manage such a meeting, or tools with more features to support procedures that are mapped out for real life meetings? I want to add my voice to the cacophony - this is an opinion piece, so feel free to agree, disagree or disregard as you see fit!

Having thought about this meeting and some of the basic questions, I arrived at what I think might be the key question. Not “should this have been shared” or “was the behaviour correct?” but:

Where does the boundary lie in public vs private when physical interactions are brought into a virtual world?

A parish council meeting is, generally, a public event. Any member of the public can attend any council meeting in the country, as standard. You may well not have the right to say anything, and there are situations (such as budget or legal discussions) where elected officials may require people to absent themselves but in general, you can sit there. The reason that parish council (or most local government) meetings aren’t a feature of most peoples’ diaries is that by and large they are dull events - long discussions on hyper-local issues that you may not be aware of or care about. Like many government functions, someone may need to worry about these things, but most of us choose not to.

The meetings have a vestige of the public - they tend to be on public property, the lights are on, the door is open, you could wander in if you happened to be passing, you could see who else is there, or not there. By contrast, the confines of an online video conference have the trappings of the private - there’s a waiting room, or a password, or both. You need the link, you need to know a meeting is happening, you can’t just stumble upon it (well, not since Zoom closed the Zoom-bombing loopholes anyway). Nevertheless a council meeting online is still a council meeting and likely if you had wanted to attend you could. But your presence is more noticed, and there are certain levels of privacy - you can leave your camera off, change your name. So the atmosphere feels distinctly different.

What does that mean about the video being shared so widely? The event was public, thus the public having access to view it seems reasonable. However, nobody at the time would have considered such wide dissemination, and the internet has a reach beyond the wildest dreams of past broadcast media - you can be made a hero or villain around the globe in minutes. Of course in this case the video was a public event, so there should be at least an expectation that there’s no right to privacy, if not necessarily an expectation of such wide viewing.

The same problem could also arise in a context where a video was not of an event that would otherwise be public - it is trivial for anyone to record video or audio of an online meeting without the knowledge of other participants. This could range from mildly awkward to downright illegal depending on the circumstances of the meeting, but it presents a challenge for any interaction we have online, especially if we’re joining in with people we don’t know. Clearly there are legal ramificaitons to some contexts of sharing a video, but knowing that whoever shared the video that made your life miserable has fallen afoul of the law is scant comfort if you’ve been at the wrong end of an internet witch hunt.

Many people are asking if the negative behaviour in the parish council video would have happened had the meeting been face to face. The answer is probably yes and no. We’ve always known that sitting behind a screen, even with a camera and microphone pointed at us, even with other peoples’ faces projected back, leaves us often with a greater confidence, a feeling of safety, a feeling that we are safe from punishment or judgement for our actions. The fact we can subsequently turn our cameras off or change our names adds to this. Whether we actually have these rights is less important than how we act - would a member of the council have yelled about the standing orders with such aplomb in the face of an attending supervisor from the local government office? I imagine not.

However, whether or not the internet changes the outward behaviours we have, the inward feelings of privilege, power, entitlement would be there in a physical meeting as much as a virtual one. I also imagine the empowerment of the physical setting actually breeds these issues in different ways than the power of anonymity. For example, if I misbehave in an online meeting where I’m not the host I am likely to be kicked out, a simple and quick process. Even if I am the host, other people can also leave easily, message other people about my behaviour, even start a new meeting without me. In a physical meeting there are barriers to all of these - a disruptive person may need to be physically restrained or removed, which may involve escalating significantly. Similarly, even leaving can be difficult when everyone can see you leave, challenge you on it. Speaking to others privately about concerns is much harder if this needs to be in front of others.

It may be the case that the virtual nature of this specific meeting was a net negative for disruptive elements in this particular council - it was possible to shut them down, and subsquent distribution of the video looks to have wider ramifications. It has prompted a debate about a culture of bullying in local government which is likely to have a positive impact, or at least throw more negative behaviour into the spotlight. Of course there could also be a chilling effect - people may simply be more hesitant to engage in virtual meetings, people may try to conduct more business behind closed doors where possible, or limit contact to known confidants.

We also need to be very careful the very technology that’s meant more of life can continue in this pandemic than it might have done 20 years ago isn’t a subsequent cause of further isolation. It’s easy to recognise an age difference in some video participants from many of those responsible in spreading it and commenting on it. It’s important more than ever that technology serves an audience across boundaries, especially that of age which has traditionally been an impediment to adoption of new technology.

There’s a clear difference between a chortle as your nan forgets to mute herself whilst talking to the cat, and social media mocking of someone who, for better or worse, loses their temper in what they think is a small group conversation. Of course there are circumstances in this video that are amusing, and some that are concerning, but I do wonder if the reaction would have been different if the participants were younger. In saying so, I am aware of my own privilege and prejudice - in my own head I cannot picture younger people making some of these mistakes, which shows that I regard some of the chaos in prejudiced terms. That being said we must also recognise that there is a struggle to adopt technology as people get older, and even post-pandemic there’s likely to be a higher requirement for everyone to understand and involve themselves more in the world of connected devices. Are we building that place to be inclusive?

I began this article by asking:

Where does the boundary lie in public vs private when physical interactions are brought into a virtual world?

I think the answer is, we don’t know. Not because we can’t see it, but because every time we look back it has moved. What this does mean is that we have to regard our interactions as increasingly public, whatever vestige of privacy is present. At the same time we need to be more aware that what is said to one person may be available to many, but if it wasn’t meant for them we do have to weigh it differently. It is the responsibility then of everyone involved in propagating technology into both public and private spheres to ensure we don’t leave people behind in their agency over this technology, and where possible provide controls over where their interactions may be recorded, or replayed, in the future.