Let’s face it. Although lacking the physical realities of human proximity, Zoom interactions approximate those that otherwise occur in public streets and squares. Scholars of place such as Edward Relph have maintained that physical placemaking is but one of many ways to “ground” the intangibles of human association and community.
Over the past weeks of pandemic-era propinquity (featuring digital communication methods unavailable in the plague years), most of us have experienced Zoom events, meetings, or happy hours. Their redemption is unregulated participation, despite the occasional annoyance of motor-mouth domination, gaudy beach backdrops, and other snazzy places of supposed envy.
But, in reality, sometimes Zoom places exhibit an Achilles heel for those who join in. These meetings can be places of monopoly and exclusion driven by the infamous ”moderator’s prerogative,” where controlling cults of personality find new means of expression. This is particularly ironic when the advertised Zoom topic focuses on the pandemic-driven loss of democratic, public places for which Zoom is a stand-in.
For mission-based event and meeting organizers, Zoom provides a ”public” of captive consumer attendees. Many times, I have tried to ask questions as a member of a muted audience. Usually, my inquiries vanish into nothingness, either co-opted by moderators to reinforce their sales pitches, or relegated to the world of “we don’t have time” or “we welcome your questions and will answer them [they say] later by email.”
After several experiences of feeling virtually bound and gagged, I recently attended a VE Day event sponsored by The Telegraph, not on Zoom, but using the Crowdcast platform. The experience was a model of virtual inclusion—a well-heeled lecture with several questions at the end. The questions were addressed professionally, and much more democratically than the forced captivity of Zoom “participation.” Perhaps, it is time for the controlling Zoom moderator’s prerogative to take a breather in favor of virtual equity.
My plea moving forward is simple. Please do not deny Zoom its greatest strength, the ability to be a place that truly approximates the legendary polis, town meeting, or even the family meeting in times of stress. It is no time to innovate by building new walls on a platform that, if made accessible to all, could be the equitable community of progressives’ dreams.