Why are vendors and universities mislabeling presentations?

Fake seminars proliferating
© Conrad Weisert, Information Disciplines, Inc., March, 2005

This article may be circulated freely as long as the copyright notice is included.

seminar n

a small group of advanced students in a college or graduate school engaged in original research under the guidance of a professor who meets regularly with them for reports and discussions.
-- The American Heritage Dictionary

seminar n

small class at university for discussion and research;
[U.S.] conference of specialists;
short intensive course of study.
-- The Concise Oxford Dictionary

seminar n

a group of advanced students studying under a professor with each doing original research and all exchanging results through reports and discussion.
-- Webster's Seventh Collegiate Dictionary

Mislabeled presentations

I've attended a dozen meetings in the past few years that were advertised as "seminars". Some were sponsored by universities, others by product vendors. Not one of them bore the slightest resemblance to the above definitions.

What they turned out to be were:

I keep getting more seminar invitations in the mail and by E-mail, some free, others for a fee. I doubt that any of them is for a real seminar.

An extreme example

The all-time extreme example may have been held by Microsoft in 1992 to present the new Windows 3.1®, concurrent with the Comdex trade show in Chicago. Conference attendees were invited to an early morning seminar in the Arie Crown theater in McCormick Place convention center. Arie Crown seats about 4000 people!

That arrogant presentation to a handful of people in a cavernous dark theater would have been a dismal failure no matter what they called it, but attendees were laughing afterwards about having participated in a seminar.

An ugly new coinage

Every week or two I get an E-mail inviting me to participate in a "webinar". I don't recall who originated1 that ugly term; it may have been Microsoft, although the term is missing from their own trendy Encarta dictionary (2001). Presumably it was meant to describe a seminar where participants communicate through their web browsers.

If it's unrealistic to hold a seminar for several hundred people in the same room, it's absolutely impossible to engage several thousand seated at separate computer consoles. I sat through one once; it turned out to be a webcast2, i.e. a presentation disseminated over the Internet. If you had a browser, audio, and a high-speed connection you could passively take it in. There was no opportunity for interaction among the participants (how could there be?), but we could submit questions to be answered by E-mail.

Life is too short. Now whenever I see "webinar" in an E- mail I hit the delete key immediately.

There are even companies to help you produce and host your webinar. Their brochures and web pages confirm that they're really selling web-based presentations.

What's the purpose?

No doubt the word seminar appeals, both to the sponsors and, at least in the sponsor's view, to prospective participants. There's something scholarly and prestigious about a seminar. You can ask your boss for permission to take Friday off to attend a seminar, but you might hesitate to go to a sales talk.

The terminology may be firmly entrenched now. If so, what should we call a real seminar?

1 -- If you know, tell me and I'll modify this article to assign proper blame.
2 -- Webcasts are a legitimate and economical way of making a presentation or conducting a course for a geographically dispersed group. If I'm interested in the topic I'll watch, but please don't call it a webinar.

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Last modified March 16, 2005