Low engagement in virtual events: are we lacking digital confidence?

As virtual events become more relevant in our lives, we need to analyse what elements are limiting people’s willingness or capacity to engage with others in the virtual space

By Richa Puri

This year is like no other. The COVID-19 pandemic has left most of us trapped in the world of video-calling interfaces and virtual interactions. But are we all comfortable enough interacting and expressing ourselves in this new space? After being part of the ICSW team organising seven virtual events this year, I have the feeling that the answer is no.

We had webinars where participants were very engaged. They commented in the chatbox, posted questions in the Q&A box, and even raised their hands to give an opinion in front of the camera during breakout room sessions. But in some events, engagement was low. And I saw this happening more and more in other online events outside ICSW as well.

With my anthropological lens, I tried to analyse the hidden reasons leading to this dwindling engagement in webinars and online meetings. Are we experiencing virtual hesitation, shyness, anxiety, social phobia, fatigue or fear? Do we need to build or boost our digital confidence?

I believe that a mix of those factors can undermine the digital confidence of people attending virtual events and limit their willingness or capacity to engage with others. Maybe some are too shy to speak in front of a camera or to take the microphone. Others could be intimidated by “high profile” speakers, experts or peers in the audience, and that could stop them from sharing their views, opinions or asking questions even in a written way. Nowadays, many events offer simultaneous interpretation (we did in every ICSW/virtual event), but if it is not provided, attendees who do not feel confident communicating in the main language of the event may choose not to engage, not even writing comments or questions.

To some extent, people may experience social anxiety induced by the idea of being negatively judged by other attendees and organisers during online events.

Of course, low levels of engagement could be influenced by other elements not linked to digital confidence. Maybe the event is just not engaging. Attendees may be multitasking or have a poor internet connection that limits their interaction. The kind of device used to join an online event also plays a critical role in increasing the attention span and lowering participation.

For example, while using Zoom on mobile phones, attendees cannot see the live stream and access the chatbox at the same time because screens are too small. In this case, it is understandable that some people prefer to focus on watching the presentation, the speaker or the performance rather than exchanging comments.

Online communication is here to stay. That means that we need to pay more attention to digital confidence and to any other digital challenges and gaps that reduce the meaningful engagement of participants in online meetings and events.

The ICSW 2020-21 journey will continue next year and while we may focus more on local, in-person events (if the sanitary situation allows it), virtual events will continue to be a part of our global conversation about people power. We will increase our efforts to make this conversation more interactive, including finding ways to strengthen the digital confidence of those who join this journey.