Short version of this post: I recommend not using the “popcorn” system to have people in a meeting introduce themselves, because there are a variety of ways that that system can cause stress and upset to participants.
Long version follows.
A couple of times now, I’ve been in social-justice-related video calls with a bunch of people I don’t know, and the leader of the group has asked everyone to introduce themselves, and someone has suggested that we do that in “popcorn” order.
The first time this happened, I had no idea what “popcorn” meant, and had to ask for it to be explained. (…Or maybe someone else asked? I forget.)
For others who may not know, the way it works is that one person introduces themselves, and then they pick someone else on the call and they say that other person’s name. That picked person then introduces themselves, and then picks someone else, and so on, until (in theory) everyone has introduced themselves.
I’m guessing that the general idea behind popcorning is to get everyone involved and revved up and interacting with each other (albeit in a minimal way) and eager to work together to achieve the group’s goal. I can imagine contexts in which a similar kind of process might have that effect for me. But in the contexts where I’ve seen it, popcorning hasn’t had that effect (at least not for me), and it has instead had several negative effects.
My first and least important concern about the concept is that when the leaders assume that everyone knows how it works, that can be alienating to newcomers.
After that first meeting where I had to have it explained, I no longer needed an explanation. But in the other meetings (of different groups) where I’ve seen popcorning happen, it’s possible that some other attendees didn’t know what popcorning was, and in those meetings, nobody explained the process. (And it didn’t occur to me to explain it myself, or to ask someone else to explain.)
But I also have bigger concerns. For example:
If there are more than about ten attendees, it’s nearly impossible for a newcomer to keep track of who has gone already and who hasn’t. So the people who go late in the process are likely to have to give up and say something like “I don’t know who’s gone and who hasn’t, who wants to go next?” Which means that you’re probably going to end up not using the popcorn process toward the end anyway.
(I’m told that some people view the keeping-track aspect as a positive thing, because it makes attendees pay attention to who’s already gone during the introductions. I don’t particularly like that as a goal (for me, trying to keep track of meta-information like that distracts me from listening to the introductions); but if it is a goal, then I would recommend that the leaders be explicit upfront about that, saying something like: “Part of the goal of popcorning is to make you keep track of who has spoken and who hasn’t, so you should pay close attention to that and maybe take notes.”)
- When someone is picking the next person to speak, they’re more likely to pick names that they know how to pronounce than names that they don’t know how to pronounce; so people with less-common-in-this-meeting’s-context names are likely to get called on later or not at all. (Also, such people’s names are likely to get mispronounced when they do get called on.) This is especially unfortunate in contexts where the people with less-common-in-this-meeting’s-context names are also people with less privilege.
- For an attendee who doesn’t know anyone else at the meeting, and who’s prone to social anxiety, it can be super anxiety-inducing to have to decide who to pick to go next.
- When an attendee doesn’t know anyone else at the meeting, or is known to some of the group but some people don’t especially like them, I suspect that they’ll often end up not being chosen until late in the process, because I suspect that people who do know and like each other tend to pick each other. (I don’t know how often that happens in practice, but I’ve gotten that impression in my limited experience, and others have told me that they’ve seen it too.) I imagine that some people go out of their way to pick someone they don’t know, but I’m pretty sure that at least some other people don’t.
In theory, in this context, there’s nothing wrong with getting “picked” late in the sequence, or even going last, because in theory, everyone is going to get a turn sooner or later. But in practice, it can feel unpleasant or awkward to not be picked for a long time, especially if you suspect that you haven’t been picked yet because of your name or because nobody knows you or because certain people don’t like you. It can feel reminiscent of (for example) team-picking in gym class, where the popular and athletic kids get chosen first. In popcorning, the order is chosen by the aggregate of the participants (as opposed to being random, or being determined by some external factor), which can make it feel like a hierarchy even if it isn’t exactly one.
…Btw, I’m not the only one who’s uncomfortable with popcorning; for example, a web search for [popcorn zoom] brought up this post from a college student as the first search result.
So what’s a better approach?
My answer: It’s much simpler for the leader of the meeting to just call on people, in some obvious-to-them order.
For example, on a video call, the leader can use the order that the attendees appear in on the leader’s screen, or on the list-of-attendees’-names panel—those orderings may be different from the orders that everyone else sees, but it is nonetheless still an order, and it’s an order that makes sure everyone is included, without biases about who goes where in the order. (The leader can even read the list of names aloud at the start, so participants will know ahead of time who’s going to come right before them; and the leader can explicitly check with the first person to make sure they’re OK with going first.)
There are problems with that approach, too (for example, it still may result in mispronounced names, and it results in somewhat less direct interaction among participants, which can make it feel a little hierarchical); but at least it reduces most of the problems I listed above.
I can imagine that there could be variants on popcorning that might work better for me, but in the form that I’ve seen it in, I recommend not using it.
And if you as a meeting leader do decide to use it, then I strongly recommend explaining it upfront, and explicitly stating what your goals are for using the format, and explicitly requesting that people call on others who they don’t know when possible. And explicitly establishing a protocol for what to do when someone doesn’t know how to pronounce someone else’s name.
PS: On a side note, if the meeting has more than (say) a dozen or so attendees, it takes a long time for everyone to introduce themselves. And during most of that time, most of the participants are probably not paying a lot of attention or being especially engaged. (A lot of them are probably anxiously awaiting their turn, or preparing what they’re going to say, or tuning out because they’ve already had their turn, or paying more attention to keeping track of who’s spoken than to what’s being said, or trying to decide whether the embarrassment of introducing themselves to the whole group is worse than the embarrassment of dropping out of the call.) But that’s not an issue with popcorning as such; I’m just noting in passing that for (say) a 30-person group, it may not be worth taking the time to have everyone introduce themselves.