in defence (not defiance) of Zoom

This morning I saw online several people with Zoom fatigue.  In response, I wanted to share my thoughts.

Disclaimer – I’ve never used Zoom.  I have, however, used Bramble, Google Hangouts, and several other online meeting services.

A member of my church’s congregation recently spent hours and hours honing her online skills and created a Google Hangouts place.  Our regular services were cancelled due to Coronavirus.  We lacked the ability to stay connected. We’d previously meet once per week on the Sabbath and sometimes more.  But all that was gone with the coming of the virus.  It would be temporary, we were told, but no one knew just how long ‘temporary’ would be.  It’d been a few months since we met, and many felt like stray sheep.  So she, who lost her job, put into motion a scheme to get us all together again, but this time online.  She spent hours with people online and on the phone, guiding them through something totally unfamiliar.  It worked.  There were a few bugs to work out, like anything new, but it worked.  Now people meet anytime they wish, not just once per week.

Sure, email was possible.  We can spend long stretches of time concocting the correct sequences of words to portray out thoughts, specifically to one audience member, the recipient of the email.  Yes, there is a place for this, and letter-writing has been around for centuries.  Other communication modes can make lasting impression as well, but the written word can be revisited anytime the recipient wishes.  Like in writing this post, emailing, letter writing, writing of articles for newspapers and magazines, etc., good storytelling takes time to hone.  But it’s not a relaxed, interactive hangout time.  It’s more like a homework assignment.

Yes, we have instant messaging.  We have apps on our computers, we have apps on our mobile phones, and we have texting.  It’s an instant way of sending a short snippet of our thoughts to get the message out ASAP.  This is useful for asking quickly where someone is while waiting 30 minutes past their meeting time at a coffee shop –  ‘yes‘ and ‘6:15‘ and ‘on my way‘ or ‘Help, lost, can’t find campsite‘.  But for sending our thoughts and feelings, for showing our emotions, it is terrible, no matter how animated the emoticons are.  I’ve used everything from ICQ in the late 1990s to WhatsApp just yesterday.  Do these apps help keep us connected?  Uh … kind of.  Do they help us feel connected?  Not always.

While living overseas and being without my peeps and family, I got very lonely.  I started copying and pasting paragraphs of email content to send to various people, changing the name or some expletives accordingly.  I’d become super excited when finding a new email in my inbox.  I’d not just read the email, I’d read the heck out of it.  Beginning in 1998, it occurred to me that I could create a single letter, addressed to all, and put it online – a kind of web log of sorts.  I called it the ‘Ongoing Letter’.  This was long before the word blog came about.  Creating my first website kept me busy in my spare time and not as lonely before and after work.  It worked … for a short time.  People were amazed at this novel idea and went with it.  I’d get emails now in reply to what I wrote.  After a while, however, it backfired.  People would forget to read it because it wasn’t in their inbox to remind them.  Or people would tell themselves they’d write back later.  ‘After all’, they thought, ‘the letter isn’t exactly addressed to me’.

Phone calls were expensive.  I guess this made phone calls special events when they happened.  I remember once, while visiting my sister in the UK, we were walking in the hills of Scotland when my phone rang.  It was one of my students from Korea, where I’d lived.  He wanted to know what I was up to during my holidays.  But this wasn’t any ordinary phone call.  It was a video call.  From my student in busy, frenzied Korea, all the way to the serene, peaceful highlands of Scotland, I was on a video call!  This was when video calls first came out in Korea, and the novel of it was still fresh.  It wasn’t a choppy, invasive, ‘can you hear me?’ kind of thing.  My student heard birds through the audio, saw blobs of sheep in the distance, and heard and saw me as though I were right there in the classroom with him.  It made a strong impression on me.  ‘This idea really actually works!’

So now that I’m back home and I’ve had vast amounts of various forms of communication in a couple of languages through a few different cultures with an infinite quantity of accents over a large stretch of time, I’ve come to appreciate any form of communication.  So now – what is this complaint everyone has about Zoom?  What is this about feeling disconnect, frustration, isolation, or any other gripe?  Have people not travelled outside their own backyard and experienced real isolation before?  Have we all become rigid in our expectation of what communication is?  Are people so caught up in the cushy experience of sitting in a lounge chair with friends at a coffee shop that we have lost (or never had) the ability to roll with it?

I now teach online.  We use Bramble.  A small percent of my students’ parents were skeptical of this online teaching platform idea.  We have now been using it for a couple of months.  We rarely use video, but when we do, it’s a quick greeting with some smiles and amusement of seeing the other person’s furniture in the background.  After that, for the remainder of the class, we use a whiteboard and voice.  We know better than to crank our own volume up so that we cause feedback and echo in the sound.  ‘How come I can hear myself?‘ has long since been dealt with.  We upload pictures and PDF documents, write all over them, change screens back and forth when they get too full, just like when we meet in person, but without the confusion of where someone left their paper.  Students are more organized, on-time with their homework, and focused on the lesson.  Their surroundings don’t distract them as much, as we’re focused on the lesson on the screen.  As the teacher, I have a pen to write on my tablet PC, and I ask students who don’t have pens to tell me what to write (three over a hundred equals x over forty-two).  They are retaining more.  Having to voice out what they want to write somehow cements the lessons in their memories more.  Having to explain it helps them to retain it.  ‘It is in teaching that we learn‘ has never been so true, so accurate, so timely, so proven.

As for church, I watch a church webcast.  <sigh>  Yes, that’s all fine and good.  It’s webcast to thousands of people from a central place.  They put a lot of effort into making the experience work – both the technology and the concept that we’re all in it together despite the physical distance.  It’s well planned and thought out and fluid.  In my own small congregation, church is more like an interactive experience.  There are distractions.  The sound cable won’t work, or a child drops a toy, or someone’s headache is too strong and they have to sit at the back, or a baby fusses.  In the cyber world, it might be the video freezes or the sound gets compressed too much, making the speaker sound like a robot or the singer Cher (with her high-powered pitch correction).  That’s real life.  Once a week we do a Bible study.  In-person Bible studies are more like excited discussions with real people saying real things than a spit-and-polish webcast.  Our pastor finds topics that he feels are important to the audience.  It’s a two-way street, unlike a webcast, unlike my ‘Ongoing Letter‘.

So how about the online experience?  How does that work?  For the most part, with the exception of someone in the ‘audience’ cranking the volume so high that we hear everything six or seven times (still working the bugs out), the experience is exactly that – the experience.  We’re in it, we’re part of it, and we’re immersed in it.  I feel the people when they speak.  I glance at their faces when they emote.  I see everyone else’s faces in little pictures on the bottom of my screen, much the same way as I see faces in my side vision in an in-person experience.  I don’t, however, stare at people’s faces.  I don’t stare into people’s eyes when I speak with them in person, either.  I think someone staring nonstop directly into my eyes is creepy, and I don’t do that to others, either.  In fact, I would even go so far as to suggest that blankly staring into the tiny dot that is my webcam makes it easier to speak my thoughts than looking into someone’s eyes and being distracted by their ever-changing facial expressions or their obvious need to interrupt.  Further, when someone speaks online, everyone is listening, unlike in an in-person conversation where people interrupt and speak over someone else’s words.

It takes work to create and organize a meeting place.  Like someone who creates a sermon, it takes time to plan and think it out.  Like someone who brings the snack and coffee, it takes effort to make the carrots and sauce cold and the coffee hot.  Similar to an online experience, where it takes someone like our Google Hangouts expert who has put many hours into working the kinks out, finding a coffee shop that isn’t noisy and has no flies, or finding a meeting place that feels comfortable, or finding a classroom with few distractions and good acoustics also all take effort.  Is it perfect?  No.  Is it cumbersome?  A little.  But, considering the default alternative cause by the virus, can we not roll with it?

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