Zoom Ups and Downs

January 13, 2021

Atlanta No sense in lying. I’m tired of Zoom, and, worse, I’m starting to think that it is hurting our work. In my mind, Zoom is becoming like Facebook, an interesting and sometimes valuable communication tool, but a highly deficient organizing tool, because of its superficiality.

Partly, I’m moving to this conclusion after having been part of three organizing committee meetings for the ACORN Tenants Union in Atlanta. Some of the problem is simply technical. In our constituency of lower income and working families, the digital divide looms large for some groups of our members, and the technical challenges for novice Zoombies can be daunting.

But, that’s not really it. The people who do sign in are enthusiastic, vocal, and committed. I think the real organizing issue is that the level of commitment to participate is too shallow, a little bit like what has now become the largely meaningless value of a “like” on Facebook, which measures almost nothing about potential attendance. Without constant “touches” with the “yes” commitments, it is too easy, sitting at home in the maelstrom of daily pandemic work and life, to not linkup or dial into a Zoom “meeting,” partly because no one really sees it as a meeting.  The formula on “yesses” to attendance for organizers is out of whack, because while Zoom communicates, it doesn’t build conviction, relationships, or a real understanding of participation, especially in an organization or action. That’s a challenge that forces real adaptation on the fly for organizers, and, frankly, that’s never easy for an emerging organization.

Working with student interns in various cities, Zoom is a mixed blessing with slightly higher rewards. If the project is research, it works for delegation and assignments. University and graduate students are comfortable with the technology, so that barrier is removed, but when it comes to organizing, it is more of a crutch, than a tool. It facilitates being able to check in, without facilitating real understanding.  For training, without getting people into the field to really do the work, Zoom is no substitute. Talking to professors who haven’t physically seen their students since March 2020, they join organizers in feeling like they are flying blind without a real grip on development, problems, and progress.

Sharing concerns about Zoom with a professorial colleague and friend, he noted that some things worked better for participation, like showing movies on Zoom and seeing the utilization of the “chat” feature and participation in Q&A’s. His point is well taken. I’ve participated in group viewings of “The Organizer” on Zoom with members in Manchester, Toronto, and Ottawa, and they worked superbly on all accounts. Of course, this is more like interactive television and different than organizing, because no action is required and your shoes can stay off.

Post-pandemic, oh mercy, that day can’t come too soon, Zoom will still have value for those kinds of events and certainly is useful and cheaper for international meetings and governance, but won’t be a substitute for other organizing. Perhaps a hybrid, like we’re discussing in Atlanta, where people, who are willing, meet physically, and a computer allows others less mobile or more challenged to dial or linkup will find a place, but in the business of people joining other people to make change, the screens need to be set aside so people can plan and act in concert.

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