Funny and thought-provoking satires of the conference call

[There are (at least) three satires of the audio conference call experience making the social media rounds lately – in addition to the one in the article below from Slate, there’s David Grady’s comedy routine “A Conference Call” and the recent Tripp & Tyler video “A Conference Call in Real Life”; they’re all not only at times laugh-out-loud funny but illustrate key presence concepts (and their absence).]

Win-Win graphic by Zach Scott

[Image: “Win-Win” by Zach Scott; the animated version is here]

“Like David Lynch Directed a Remake of Office Space

A site that perfectly captures the existential despair of the conference call.

By Joshua Keating

Is there a form of modern communication more frustrating and alienating than the conference call? The inevitable technical glitches, the mysterious background sounds and missed connections, the uncertainty of just who’s on the other end, the jokes that seem hilarious on one end but are met with dead silence on the other—it all combines to create a very particular and identifiable type of white-collar existential dread.

This sensation is captured perfectly by the innocuous-sounding site ConferenceCall.biz, created by Washington, D.C.-based GIF artist Zach Scott. Click through and you’ll be taken into a simulated conference call in which the participants seem perpetually talking at cross purposes, coming into the conversation late, and expressing frustration that they’re discussing material they’ve already covered. (A dog barking in the background has a memorable cameo.)

The dialogue is randomized so that you never listen to exactly the same meeting twice; this effect also adds to the feeling of disconnection between the participants but somehow still feels entirely believable. Sometimes—particularly if you’re listening at work—it can feel eerily realistic. As Scott tells me via email, “It always makes me laugh when the first randomly selected audio clip that plays is ‘Did someone just join the call?’ because it makes the website visitor feel like they’re being addressed directly.”

According to Scott, there are about 75 lines of dialogue and 15 participants in the call. “The voices on ConferenceCall.biz are all vaguely addressing the same handful of topics, but they’ll never get around to making any substantial progress,” Scott says. “I created the script with randomization in mind. Occasionally a few clips will play back-to-back and respond directly to each other, while at other times the audio clips bounce from one person addressing a technical problem to another.”

All of it’s accompanied by an eerie electronic soundtrack and washed-out office imagery that another blog has described as “what would happen if David Lynch directed a re-make of Office Space.” One friend of mine has also compared the aesthetic to “Fitter Happier”-era Radiohead.

What makes conference calling such perfect material for this type of project? “I think conference calls provoke such a negative reaction because they allow people and technology to frustrate us simultaneously,” says Scott. “The human failure is easy to recognize—people talking over each other, calling in 10 minutes late and interrupting, forgetting to unmute before speaking. On the technology side, conference calls are in an Uncanny Valley–like stage where they manage to serve the basic purpose of allowing numerous people to speak with each other, but are still far away from providing a smooth experience that feels as practical as being in the same room with other people.”

Reactions to the site have varied from amusement to near despair. (The Russian edition of Esquire is currently linking to ConferenceCall.biz from its homepage with the caption “useless site.”)

“Before I launched the website, I expected that those who were more familiar with conference calls would respond to the more humorous elements in it, while those who were unfamiliar might react more to the melancholy elements,” Scott says. “While I intended for ConferenceCall.biz to be surreal, somewhat melancholy, but also funny, a lot of the reactions I’ve seen have viewed it as a documentation of a certain kind of hell. Some people seem to view it only as a true attempt at a simulation of conference calls, while others approach it more as an artistic expression. I also know of some people who use it as an ambient relaxation tool to play in the background.”

I have a hard time imagining blissfully grooving to ConferenceCall.biz—but it does make you wonder how many office workers are using real conference calls this way.

Joshua Keating is a staff writer at Slate focusing on international affairs and writes the World blog. Follow him on Twitter.

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