Zoom in, zoom out

It was early on in the lockdown that the daughter participated in her first ever Zoom videoconference. It was an extended family call, with some 25 people across 9 or 10 households.

It was chaotic, to say the least. Family call meant there was no “moderation” of the sort you see in work calls (“mute yourself unless you’re speaking”, etc.). Each location had an entire family, so apart from talking on the call (which was chaotic with so many people anyways), people started talking among themselves. And that made it all the more chaotic.

Soon the daughter was shouting that it was getting too loud, and turned my computer volume down to the minimum (she’s figured out most of my computer controls in the last 2 months). After that, she lost interest and ran away.

A couple of weeks later, the wife was on a zoom call with a big group of her friends, and asked the daughter if she wanted to join. “I hate zoom, it’s too loud”, the daughter exclaimed and ran away.

Since then she has taken part in a couple of zoom calls, organised by her school. She sat with me once when I chatted with a (not very large) group of school friends. But I don’t think she particularly enjoys Zoom, or large video calls. And you need to remember that she is a “video call native“.

The early days of the lockdown were ripe times for people to turn into gurus, and make predictions with the hope that nobody would ever remember them in case they didn’t come through (I indulged in some of this as well). One that made the rounds was that group video calling would become much more popular and even replace group meetings (especially in the immediate aftermath of the pandemic).

I’m not so sure. While the rise of video calling has indeed given me an excuse to catch up “visually” with friends I haven’t seen in ages, I don’t see that much value from group video calls, after having participated in a few. The main problem is that there can, at a time, be only one channel of communication.

A few years back I’d written about the “anti two pizza rule” for organising parties, where I said that if you have a party, you should either have five or fewer guests, or ten or more (or something of the sort). The idea was that five or fewer can indeed have one coherent conversation without anyone being left out. Ten or more means the group naturally splits into multiple smaller groups, with each smaller group able to have conversations that add value to them.

In between (6-9 people) means it gets awkward – the group is too small to split, and too large to have one coherent conversation, and that makes for a bad party.

Now take that online. Because we have only one audio channel, there can only be one conversation for the entire group. This means that for a group of 10 or above, any “cross talk” needs to be necessarily broadcast, and that interferes with the main conversation of the group. So however large the group size of the online conversation, you can’t split the group. And the anti two pizza rule becomes “anti greater than or equal to two pizza rule”.

In other words, for an effective online conversation, you need to have four (or at max five) participants. Else you can risk the group getting unwieldy, some participants feeling left out or bored, or so much cross talk that nobody gets anything out of it.

So Zoom (or any other video chat app) is not going to replace any of our regular in-person communication media. It might to a small extent in the immediate wake of the pandemic, when people are afraid to meet large groups, but it will die out after that. OK, that is one more prediction from my side.

In related news, I swore off lecturing in Webinars some five years ago. Found it really stressful to lecture without the ability to look into the eyes of the “students”. I wonder if teachers worldwide who are being forced to lecture online because of the shut schools feel the way I do.

Mixing groups at parties

I normally don’t like mixing groups at parties I host – that sometimes leaves me as a “cut vertex” meaning that I have to personally take it upon myself to entertain one or more guests and can’t leave them to be “self-sufficient”. You might recall that a bit over two years ago, I had tried to use social network analysis to decide who to call for my birthday party.

However, for unavoidable reasons, we had to call a mixed set of friends to a party yesterday. We’re “putting BRexit” later this week (moving back to Bangalore), and considering that there were so many people we wanted to meet and say goodbye to, we decided that the best way of doing so was to call them all together to one place.

And so we ended up with a bit of a mixed crowd. The social network at yesterday’s party looked like this. For the sake of convenience, I’ve collapsed all the “guest families” into one point each. The idea is that while a guest family can “hang out among themselves”, they needn’t have come to the party to do that, and so it fell upon us hosts to talk to them.¬†

So the question is – with three hosts, one of whom was rather little, how should we have dealt with this assortment of guests?

Note that pretty much everyone who RSVPd in the affirmative came to the party, so the graph is unlikely to have been more connected than this – remove my family and you would have a few islands, including a couple of singletons.

Should we have spent more time with the families that would’ve been singletons than with those who knew other guests to interact with? Or was it only fair that we spent an equal amount of time with all guests? And considering that we could deal with guests on the right side of the graph “in twos”, did that mean we should have proportionately spent more time with those guys?

In any case, we took the easy way out. Little Berry had an easy time since there were two entities she knew, and she spent all her time (apart from when she wanted parental attention) with them. The wife and I were taking turns to buy drinks for freshly arrived guests whenever they arrived, and on each occasion we helped ourselves to a drink each. So we didn’t have to worry about things like social network dynamics when we had more important things to do such as saying goodbye.

I just hope that our guests yesterday had a good time.

Oh, and way too many conversations in the last two weeks have ended with “I don’t know when I’ll see you next”. It wasn’t like this when we were moving the other way.

 

The Anti-Two Pizza Rule

So Amazon supposedly has a “two pizza rule” to limit the size of meetings – the convention is that two pizzas should be sufficient to feed all participants in any meeting. While pizza is not necessarily served at most meetings, the rule effectively implies that a meeting can’t have more than seven or eight people.

The point of the rule is not hard to see – a meeting that has too many people will inevitably have people who are not contributing, and it’s a waste of their time. Limiting meeting size also means cutting total time employees spend in meetings, meaning they can get more shit done.

While this is indeed a noble “rule” in a corporate setting, it just doesn’t work for parties. In fact, after having analysed lots of parties I’ve either hosted or attended over the years, and after an especially disastrous party not so long ago (I’ve waited a random amount of time since that party before writing this so as to not offend the hosts), I hereby propose the “anti two pizza rule” for parties.

While five to eight people is a good number for a meeting, having enough people contributing but no deadweight, the range doesn’t do well at all for more social gatherings. The problem is that with this number, it is not clear if the gathering should remain in one group, or split into multiple groups.

When you have a “one pizza party” (5-6 people or less), you have one tight group (no pun intended) and assuming that people will get along with each other, you’re likely to have a good time.

When you have a “three pizza party” (more than 10 people), it’s intuitive for the gathering to breakup into multiple groups, and if things go well, these groups will be fluid and everyone will have a good time.¬†Such a gathering also allows people to test waters with multiple co-attendees and then settle on the mini-group that they’ll end up spending most time with.

A two-pizza party (6-10 people), on the other hand, falls between the two stools. One group means there will be people left out of the conversation without respite. In such a small gathering, it is also not easy to break out of the main group and start your own group (again, seating arrangement matters). And so while some attendees (the “core group”) might end up having fun, the party doesn’t really work for most participating parties.

So, the next time you’re hosting a party, do yourself and your guests a favour and ensure that you don’t end up with between 6 and 10 people at the party. Either less or more is fine!

You might want to read this other post I’ve written on coordinating guest lists for birthday parties.