There’s been a lot of buzzing around on the web about the whole question of using Wifi and IM to have backchannel discussions during lectures and presentations (especially after the New York Times wrote an article about it), but I see Wifi more day to day in meetings and it drives me nuts. Because the reality is that most of the time it’s not people having backchannel discussions in meetings, it’s just people tuning out of the meeting and reading email/surfing the web. Which raises the question: if you came to the meeting to just surf and read email, why did you come at all?
I don’t know whether we’re at the leading edge here or not here at Microsoft. We’ve had Wifi for long enough now that most people who can obtain a laptop do so so they can bring it to meetings and be connected. Indeed, I got one two years ago for exactly that reason, and then traded it in a year or so ago for a TabletPC so I could be even more inconspicuous when reading email during a meeting (i.e. so I could put it in my lap rather than sticking it on the table). However, what I eventually came to was exactly what I was saying above: if I’m going to this meeting so I can sit here and read email, why am I bothering to be here in the first place? Ultimately, I think it’s either rude to the rest of the meeting attendants or a waste of my time or both, take your pick. But the phenomenon is now that each meeting literally consists of two groups of people: those who came to go to the meeting and those who came to surf and read for an hour. (Maybe people purposefully go to meetings they have nothing to say in so they can read email in peace, whereas in their offices people would bug them…)
There’s really nothing to be done about it, anymore than there is anything to be done about people having loud personal conversations on cell phones in public spaces. There might be some side benefit for meeting organizers, too. At any meeting you set up, look around and see who’s checked out and make a mental note of it. Those are the people you don’t need to bother to invite to future meetings.
(And, as a side note, I’ve stopped taking my tablet to meetings to make it harder for me to check out. Which is not to say that my mind still doesn’t wander…)