Many are discovering Zoom’s silver lining

COVID has worn out its welcome, but the video conference platform that is now a household name has spawned unexpected benefits

By Christy Nadalin
Posted 10/24/20

Remember the first time … how awkward it was? The cues that guide the rhythm of normal conversation were missing, the lighting and camera angles were unflattering, and that first view of …

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Many are discovering Zoom’s silver lining

COVID has worn out its welcome, but the video conference platform that is now a household name has spawned unexpected benefits

Posted

Remember the first time … how awkward it was? The cues that guide the rhythm of normal conversation were missing, the lighting and camera angles were unflattering, and that first view of yourself in the grid view made you realize that you should have paid better attention to the aesthetics of the space behind you.

Zoom, we all thought, was going to be something we would cast aside in a few weeks, or at most a couple of months, when this inconvenient little pandemic had passed.

Now it seems it’s here to stay.

The reality is that Zoom has been around for almost a decade — and it is actually one of the newer kids on the block. Many other video conferencing platforms have been around longer. But when the pandemic pressed video conferencing into service among constituencies like schools, garden clubs, and town boards, Zoom quickly bubbled to the surface as the most user-friendly of the bunch.

Before you knew it, everyone was doing it.

Now, many months into it, not only is Zoom life not abating, people have grown comfortable enough with it to see its benefits. When you’re number four on the Historic District Committee’s agenda, would you rather sit in chairs at the town hall waiting for your case to come up, or go online with your camera and microphone off and read a book, cook dinner, or gird your loins with a stiff drink before the grilling begins?

In fact, town officials are seeing evidence that Zoom is actually improving levels of civic engagement.

“I have definitely seen a substantial increase in attendance at Zoom, vs. in-person, School Committee meetings,” said Erin Schofield, Bristol Warren Regional School Committee chairman. “I think zooming makes it easier and more convenient for busy families and community members to join in.”

Ms. Schofield noted that people can join a meeting without leaving home, or while sitting outside watching their kids at soccer practice. “I think increased participation in meetings has absolutely been a benefit of the virtual platform because the more the public is engaged and participating, the better,” she said.

Ed Tanner, Bristol’s town planner and zoning enforcement officer, agrees that Zoom has its advantages, something he is finding most evident when it comes to Bristol Zoning Board meetings. “Sometimes our meetings run late and a resident who just wants to observe or make a simple comment used to have to sit on a folding chair for a couple of hours if the hearing they are interested in was late on the agenda,” said Mr. Tanner. "Now they can have the meeting on and half-listen while doing other things until their hearing is ready.”

Mr. Tanner is seeing more people “attending” meetings, as everyone is becoming more comfortable with the format, citing the great turnout at the most recent bike path public workshop as an example.

“Although there is no way to know for sure, I would guess that many of those residents would not have attended the meeting if it were just at Town Hall,” he said.  

Though weak wi-fi and a technology learning curve can lead to glitches, the feedback to Mr. Tanner’s office has been mostly positive, and he sees a benefit to maintaining this format long after COVID is (hopefully) a distant memory.

“My personal hope is that we have a blend someday so that folks can attend in person or on computer,” he said. “I think it will really help with public engagement.”

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