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Web Conferencing for Dummies: Yup, you're on

With more and more people telecommuting and a slew of companies offering snazzy new software to link all of us up, you’d think we’d have figured out how to look professional even while on the road or working in our jammies. We haven't.
Image: Dimdim Web conferencing screenshot
This fellow, shown in a Web site ad, is dressed appropriately for a Web-based video conference. However, some folks don't dress well — or much — and others forget that the mike is on.DimDim
/ Source: contributor

It was a small meeting as teleconferences go — 10 people as opposed to 2,000 — but the embarrassment factor was huge.

“The moderator was showing applications on his desktop which means everyone could see everything,” says Lori Howard McCool, an events manager with Web conferencing service “He was also instant messaging with his girlfriend, planning their evening. And it was straight up pornographic.”

McCool says she tried to delicately remind the guy that his applications were visible to all participants, but he didn’t catch on.

“I finally had to say, ‘It looks like you have a very interesting evening planned in your chat.’ And he was like ‘You can see that?’ ”

Is this thing 'on'?
With more and more people telecommuting and a slew of companies offering snazzy new software to link all of us up, you’d think we’d have figured out how to look professional even while on the road or working in our jammies.

Sadly, though, while the software’s more sophisticated, we’ve remained as clueless as ever, routinely exposing ourselves and our personal information to coworkers and clients alike.

“We’re so integrated, we’re so interconnected now, but then we forget that we’re plugged in,” says McCool, who helps customers hold meetings and webinars using Web and audio conferencing.

In addition to viewing people’s private instant messages during shared desktop moments, McCool says she’s seen bathtub pictures of kids, customers’ credit card information and even personal reminders regarding doctor appointments (“Remember, no sex — pap smear tomorrow!”).

Her company has encountered so many tele-meeting mishaps in fact, they created a series of coffee sleeves imprinted with tips like “Flushing toilets do not make good background music; remember to mute your phone!”

A mute point
Timberly Marek, a 32-tear-old IT project manager from Portland, Ore., says she recently led a teleconference when one of the participants — who was working from home — accidentally dropped his unmuted phone in the toilet.

“We were talking about coding and then we could hear his heavy breathing and then all of a sudden, we heard a splash,” she says. “That was followed by ‘Oh s---! Just a second! Oh God, this is disgusting!’”

Marek says the entire meeting stopped as the guy desperately tried to fish his phone out of the toilet, dropping it in again as his headset came unplugged. Eventually, the splashing and swearing cut out as the phone submerged.

“Forgetting to mute is probably where the majority of mishaps come from,” says McCool, who says she’s heard everything from passing gas to crying kids to screaming taxi drivers to snide remarks about speakers during the teleconferences she’s facilitated.

“People will mumble: ‘Man, that person is a jackass,’ ” she says. “They don’t use their mute button and don’t realize that the filter isn’t there any longer. There are moments when you’re blushing for them.”

Clueless and cue-less
Patricia Wallace, psychologist and author of “The Internet in the Workplace: How New Technology is Transforming Work,” says these kinds of telecommuting snafus are a natural result of communication in an environment that lacks the customary social cues.

“We’ve created a universe in which we can interact with people without being physically present but all the controls that we used to have for our behavior are gone, they’re absent,” she says. “The cues that people are listening or watching are weak. It might just be a tiny little light on your screen.”

Claire McGuire, a 33-year-old freelance writer from Philadelphia, recently experienced this while interviewing some people via Skype. Two people were visible on her screen, she says, but only one seemed aware of the fact.

“One of them sat respectfully listening when I was talking,” she says. “But the other one would look at her companion and roll her eyes as if my question was ridiculous. I finally said ‘I should tell you that I can see you on video.' "

Wallace, who’s also witnessed her share of “weblivious” behavior (including an unmuted colleague who nodded off and began to snore during a remote session meeting) says she considers webcams practically “villainous.”

“If you turn on Skype and the webcam is on right away, chances are, you’re not going to look the way you intend to look when you appear at a business meeting,” she says. “If it’s in a hotel room, people will see weird stuff in the background — suitcases open, pillows on the bed. Plus the person may not have shaved or may have their shirt out.”

Then there are those pesky automatic settings.

“Anybody who thinks it’s fine to have the webcam on as a default is making a huge mistake,” she says. “But who’s going to look at all those defaults? We’re making blunders because we don’t know how to translate the tools we now have at our disposal.”

The new mobile office and ease with which we can connect remotely (videoconferencing options are now available through,, GoToMeeting, ooVoo and more) has also helped relax certain standards, as evidenced by a 2006 poll that found one in eight male teleworkers and one in 14 female teleworkers works in the nude.

Not surprisingly, that too has made for some candid webcamera.

“When I’m video conferencing, I’m often in my underwear,” says Danny Wong, the 19-year-old cofounder of an e-commerce startup in New York.

“I try to cut off my webcam at the neck but pretty frequently my team has seen my chest or if I’m lying on my bed with the laptop, a bare thigh. It’s easy to blur the lines. There’s not a lot of distinction between home and work.”

Mastering the technology
Since we’re still judged by the impressions we make, it’s crucial that we catch up to our technology, particularly as more new developments — such as 3-D teleconferencing crop up.

Wallace suggests workers who use webcams or teleconferencing tools take the time to learn the software — i.e., figure out where all the mute buttons are, learn the defaults — and also consider where they place their cameras or smart phones (using smart phones in lieu of webcams is “right around the corner,” she says).

Place it too high and you look like a “weak player”. Place it too low and you “look like a vampire.”

“People don’t think about what it looks like from the other side,” says Wallace, senior director of information technology at Johns Hopkins University Center for Talented Youth. “When I do an online class, I operate two computers. One so I can see what the students are seeing and one so I can see what the presenter sees. It’s not a bad idea to practice that way, so you can have a feeling what it means to be the remote person at a business meeting.”

As for our ability to master this new form of cue-less communication, Wallace says it’s probably “going to get worse before it gets better.”

Which isn’t exactly bad news, unless of course you’re the one caught picking your nose, taking off your bra or otherwise serving up the schadenfreude with your colleague’s morning coffee.

Diane Mapes is a Seattle freelance writer and author of "How to Date in a Post-Dating World." She can be reached via her website,