Inclusion: could hybrid worsen the ‘digital divide’?

At what point does an idea someone floated on LinkedIn calcify into received wisdom?

How many Likes does it take? How many Shares?

And what happens when the idea leaves the echo-chamber of social media, tests its purchase in the real world, and is found to be not quite as sticky as its proponents had had us believe?

I speak of #hybrid. Or #hybridmeetings. Or #hybridisation. More specifically the notion that #hybrid will be a much more prominent part of the meetings landscape when #coronavirus finally does one!

Is it really all that?

I have reservations: not because I’ve ever organised a meeting in my life (no fear!), but because of what people are telling me. The doubts they are expressing. The raised eyebrows I’ve noted.

There are so many questions around hybrid – particularly about resources and cost etc – but the most interesting point of contention I’ve heard pertains to equality, diversity, and inclusion.

I had assumed that adding (or increasing) an online portion of a meeting would help associations to extend their reach by allowing greater access to delegates from distant or low-income countries.

But I had not really thought it through. Or – more to the point – the sheer disparity between nations when it comes to internet connectivity and accessing content had never fully dawned on me.

While I was aware that certain countries, China for example, control access to the internet, I had underestimated the number of people in the world who still live a relatively internet-free existence.

In Europe and North America access to the internet in the home is pretty ubiquitous, but in the least developed countries (LDCs) fewer than 20 per cent of individuals have access to the internet.

According to UN statistics only 17.8% of African households are online, although this varies significantly between countries, while in Asia & Asia Pacific the figures is 48%.

During the last AMI Webinar, Tracy Bury, Deputy CEO of World Physiotherapy, said hybrid could help associations to expand their reach, but it was not always the solution people imagined it to be.

“We have to talk about the digital divide,” she said. “There are many people in lower-resource countries for whom digital is not a solution and they would much rather get their resources together to travel because (at home) they feel disengaged or they don’t have stable (internet) connections.”

Gender is another thing to consider. According to a World Wide Web Foundation report men remain 21 per cent more likely to have access to the internet than women, rising to 52 per cent in LDCs.

You could argue that none of this really matters if associations are going to maintain their in-person meetings at current levels and add online content. And that’s fair enough. Associations aren’t responsible for all the inequality in the world and they can only work with the tools at their disposal.

It gets complicated when hybrid means ‘smaller in-person gathering, larger online audience’.

We’ve all heard mutterings about the in-person portion of a hybrid meeting being for ‘those who really need to be there’ or ‘the A-list’. Again, if needs must. But who decides on what criteria such decisions are made? Who decides who gets the red carpet and who gets the bedroom or office carpet? There is a danger that ‘those who need to be there’ translates to ‘the richest and the most powerful’. And then hybrid, far from encouraging inclusivity, could simply reinforce privilege.

Bury added: “There’s a risk that it will be the privileged people coming together in-person, like-minded people without the diversity, so if we are going to do hybrid we have to do it really well to ensure we are still getting that mix across cultures, across resource settings, across the knowledge capital from different perspectives, and I think we’ve got a long way to go before we can define how we deliver it successfully for a range of different stakeholders.”

Associations should be mindful that in the rush to create hybrid events, they are not creating a meeting hierarchy, where a select few get a front row seat, while others are frozen out.

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