Zoom gives us some ability to simulate some portion of in-person interaction, and for that we are profoundly grateful (for the most part).
We do love to grouse about what Zoom can’t do, i.e. what it misses out of the human experience of being together. In a Zoom meeting there are no touch, no smell, no sense of spacial arrangement, no two or more people speaking (or singing) simultaneously.
What we haven’t explored so well is what this medium offers that is different, and perhaps better in some way, than real life.
Pants optional. Notoriously, of course, for a Zoom meeting you only have to make presentable the upper half of your body. Around the time this blog began, news outlets were reporting that Walmart was selling more tops but fewer pants.
Surreptitious observation. Consider a Zoom meeting of 8 people, versus a physical gathering of the same people around a conference room table. With Zoom you can watch everyone’s facial reactions at once. The direction of your gaze is not a giveaway; in fact where you are looking is disconnected from whose image you may be looking at. (The arrangement of faces on each person’s screen is indeterminate.)
Egalitarianism. Zoom can impart an egalitarian feel to a meeting. There may be a meeting convener and “boss,” and that person may be endowed with extra powers (such as the ability to mute anyone or everyone); but visually, the boss appears the same as everyone else. In the gallery view, all are the same size. In the speaker view, there remains an egalitarian flavor: whoever speaks gets the focus of a large image, whether it’s the boss or the janitor.
Shy empowerment. Zoom can embolden shy people. Consider someone tasked with making a presentation to a group. Doing so in person might inspire anything from tremors to abject terror. Zoom imposes a psychological distance that can be a balm to the shy speaker.
Infovore empowerment. Zoom offers advantages to the infovore. During a meeting anyone can open an on-screen window and do some quick research. Depending on security settings, anyone may display their screen to all in order to share the fruits of such research. An in-person meeting allows no similar opportunity to share with all.
What else does Zoom do better (or just differently) than actual presence?
A friend on Facebook, who works in addicton recovery, left this comment when I posted a link to this post there:
“I’ve read, and heard, that Zoom has been a boon to those in early recovery who struggle to attend 12-Step meetings in person. The recovery community, at least in the DC area, has done a great job transitioning to virtual meetings, where folks who cope with shyness, anxiety and perhaps trauma histories can now safely check out these communities (without video if need be). This provides opportunity and increases the potential for finding the right support, the right fit, the right fellowship, and the level of initial comfort needed to engender further engagement. And that’s goodness.”