The fashion for Zoom meetings in academia might have started out of necessity during the coronavirus pandemic, but the little video tiles on our laptop screens are likely here to stay. Generally, I am all in favour of it. Zoom has made my life a lot easier and saved many an unnecessary journey. I have been able to run and follow seminars, conferences and workshops as well as everyday work meetings from the comfort of my own living room, and I have managed to catch up with people I have not seen in a long time.
I think most people would agree that remote meetings can widen our horizons and connect us to people far away, while at the same time reducing our carbon footprint and time wasted on unnecessary travel.
However, the one thing Zoom gatherings cannot adequately replicate is the networking and socialising done usually during coffee breaks, after-seminar drinks and conference dinners. No matter how many break-out rooms you create or how many cups of coffee, glasses of wine or bowls of nibbles you arrange around your laptop, while talking to The Tiles, you will never have those moments when you catch someone’s eye and go over to say hello, or those spontaneous introductions to someone who happens to work in your field.
Of course, there are those moments of private conversation on-screen when the less inhibited decide to address one Tile while everyone else is watching and listening in. But for those not involved in the exchange, these moments can feel rather awkward, like overhearing a phone conversation about your seat neighbour’s marriage problems on the bus.
These awkward moments aside, I think that the real problem with academic Zoom is that it can make this narrow and selective community even more exclusive. For sure, we can all sign up for seminars, workshops and conferences if they are advertised publicly, but we won’t all be equal participants. If you are joining an event as an outsider or a newcomer to the field you might feel more inhibited to ask questions, not least because it is more difficult to read a Zoom room. You might just sit there and listen, in the worst case with your camera off, and nobody will ever remember you were there in the first place.
If you are not already one of the in-crowd or have been invited by one of the in-crowd, you are considerably less likely to find opportunities to meet and get introduced to new people at a Zoom conference than IRL. You cannot just walk up to the speaker during the coffee break, introduce yourself and ask a question; you don’t get a chance to sit next to someone new at lunch; and you don’t even get involved in a random conversation while queuing at the bar. If you joined the Zoom not knowing anybody, it’s very likely that this is how you’ll leave it.
It has always been the case that those with the right connections will find it easier to succeed in academia or any other competitive environment, while those from the outside have more hurdles to overcome. And it seems that the use of Zoom has just added another one of those hurdles.