Zoom meetings and weird decision making?

Why are decisions of the board so wacky and weird? Is it because of meeting on Zoom?

news clipping, alongside of picture of Orson Welles, about the 1938 broadcast of 'War of the World." Source: inhistorytoday.
When a different medium led to weird decision making
(graphic: inhistorytoday)

Dear Ms. Smartphone: We are planning a small move soon, but will still be able to use the city’s public schools. But now, as a parent, I worry how weird these schools could get. My wife and I have been shocked by the decision making of the local school board. Do you think that their choices are a function of meeting together on Zoom during the pandemic? Would weird decisions be less frequent if they meet on Zoom less and more in person? Teresa, San Francisco

Dear Teresa: You rightly point out that group decision making over Zoom is new for most and has reached its pinnacle during the pandemic. We have a technology, fresh out of the box, and not a lot of experience of how it tweaks or spoils public meetings.

So, a dip into the  annals of communication (see photo). An established technology with a new function can overtake the story line, particularly in anxious times. Just before W.W. II, people tuned into radio to hear the “boot by boot” “frame by frame” deliberations of the Axis powers. This was the first time in history the public could follow the pre- war buildup nightly, on radio, from their living rooms. It’s hard to picture today, but listeners heard Orson Welles Halloween Eve 1938 radio broadcast, called the “The War of the Worlds” and many panicked.  They trusted radio news, and never had reason to doubt it. On Zoom, we trust that the interpersonal dialogue has just moved to a new platform, but perhaps it’s not the same as face to face.

Zoom is Different

In today’s environment, we don’t have Martians landing, but there are some similarities. Zoom is ‘new’ software running on established media. A Zoom meeting does not function the same as pre-pandemic Skype meetings and Facetime calls. For the most part those were bolstered by interpersonal meetups opportunities for non-verbal exchanges, and less emphasis on the word itself- things critical for business relationships and group dynamics.

And, the Zoom meeting is typically larger. Public meetings, like the school board are composed of people we  ‘know’ in person and those (i.e. strangers) we have not met IRL.   Zoom meetings are also longer: we are on the Zoom platform for multiple hours at a time, often without breaks or a change in scenery. They wear down our critical faculties: “six hours on Zoom is like 10 hours in the office.” Finally, Zoom meetings are peculiar, per our conventions of two way communication: with its picture in picture function, we view ourselves viewing ourselves, analogous to fun house mirrors.

Trust in the Settings?

But, to your question: perhaps public groups reach bad decisions for other reasons- namely  they cannot trust the technology. You will recall the story of the local school board that thought they were talking offline, and exchanged “non-PC” stuff about the parents who needed babysitters, so schools needed to reopen. These are offhand remarks people might toss out privately to each other, perhaps in the parking lot or before the official meeting “on stage”. It might be communicated with humor, not with resolve. Now contrast that with Zoom. That school board, and others, have surely learned that if you are online and not sure what or whom is recording it is preferable to stay muted. So, Zoom meetings could be stifling real speech and debate.

Conversely, online meetings also stifle the “pregnant pause” or quiet moments that occur in natural, in-person conversation. Micro-moments of silence may be necessary for people to process and reflect. And there is a propensity for the quietest people to not speak up. Zoom’s chat function, polling, and raising a virtual hand are not real replacements.

Finally, and this may be at the crux, it is easier to “slack off” on Zoom. No one is going to know if we did not have the time (or the will) to read the background documents, take notes, and study the agenda.

In Sum:

For all these reasons, and probably more, Zoom  in 2020 may have led groups to decision making that may seem weird when we look back on the pandemic year. Perhaps it is less about the technology and more, circa 1938, about playing into  community wide fear and anxiety. I am sure that there are some groups and public sessions that have been improved by meeting over Zoom. I invite readers to contribute them! Meanwhile, good luck with the move and settling in-person into a new neighborhood.

Does Social Media Run our Lives?

A photo of a young girl in Paris near Eiffel Tower taking a Selfie with Phone.
Does Social Media Run our Lives and Our Travel too? (Getty Image)

Dear Ms. Smartphone: Does social media run our lives? My college roommate is a teacher in Los Angeles. He and I stay in touch, and we had planned to take a Spring Break trip this month.  This is a tradition  since we roomed together (except in 2020). Now he heard on Facebook that he was not supposed to post pictures. And he wants to cancel the trip and not travel. Is this fair?  Christian, San Francisco

Dear Christian: When I started this column, I expected that the majority of letters would be about bad digital behavior and public shaming, but now that seems wrong. Human behavior is so much more complex. It’s too easy to blame the Internet for our woes.

Travel for younger people is often inspired by photo-opportunities and bragging rights. In a 2018 travel study, Millennials and GenZ noted that posting travel pictures was also artistic and helped them feel connected. They hoped to visit exotic or scenic locales, and use smartphone cameras to record the moment. That’s not so different than the behavior of old-fashioned tourists, except that elders did not share their photos as publicly. 

More Than Pictures

But, photos are the superficial issue. Your friend may not want to go because of a larger, more pressing issue brought on by social media. The teacher’s union worries  that parents, and other members of the public, will find the holiday photos online.  Social media would reveal if teachers are straying far from home.

A similar issue occurred in Broward County (Florida). There, the School District reopened schools after they scoured teacher’s Facebook pages, and found some of them posting pictures from restaurants, Disney, and beach vacations. The teachers and lawyers went head to head. 

It is likely that your friend wants to cancel the trip because social media might “follow” him. That is the overarching concern if someone takes vacation pictures and then posts them on social media, even if they can obscure the time and date of the posting.

Whose Social Media?

Your friend is posting on his personal account, so the vetted social media policy for the school district does not apply.  But, it’s a slippery slope. School districts have challenged the rights of students to post on social media when their posts do harm and injury to classmates. When private posts go public, we begin to change our behaviors.

The way I see it, and you may disagree, teachers are opinion leaders, role models, and upholders of community values. They can’t be willy-nilly about their social media posts, any more than a federal judge, a medical doctor or a rabbi. Each profession upholds a duty and responsibility to their constituency. So, for your friend, it’s not about travel photos per se, but about the milieu of leadership and values. 

Digital Literacy for Adults too

Ironically, some school districts instruct students in a curriculum called “digital literacy.” It’s designed to make students better digital citizens. We should not neglect teachers and educators. We expect adults to be good role models, but most of them have not grown up with the technology, and are in some ways, less informed than the ‘digital native’ students. Skills like privacy controls, identifying deep fakes, and manipulating images may not be in the adult’s toolbox. 

The University of San Diego publishes a “9 P” digital literacy curriculum, one of many out there.  Their fourth “P” is about photographs- with content on geotagging, facial recognition software, and general precautions on photo posting. 

So take heed! Teachers and parents learned in more traditional ways and have a lot to learn from the digital literacy classes. It makes sense to assume that the more digitally literate our teachers are, the more they will employ these skills inside the classroom…and outside of them too. During these days when our travel trips are limited, and we are on social media more, it could not be more important. 

Why Use Voice Message, Not Text?

SmartPhone mockup has a giant megaphone (in 3D) emerging from the screen.
Use Voice Message for a change, not text

Dear Ms. Smartphone: When I long-distance with family in Israel they like to send voice memos instead of text. Mostly they have iPhones and they use a messaging app. It works for me. Why don’t more people here use a voice message instead of text? Len, Palo Alto

Dear Len: ” Paja Escribit”– that means too lazy to write! But you are on to something. The spoken word carries more weight and it expresses emotions and meaning more fully than text.

Your question prompted me to learn more about voice messaging.  WeChat introduced it to China circa 2013. It seems to have caught on there because linguistically speaking the Asian alphabets are complex for keyboard entry. In South America, What’s App caught on as messaging was free, but texts were not. It also got established in countries like India where there were multiple languages and regional dialects.

For readers who are not familiar with voice messaging, it’s like text, except that you speak the message. They are also called voice notes or voice memos.  Initially, the audio was limited to 15 to 30 seconds, but today it can be as long as 15 minutes. There are different platforms for sending the audio file, that I won’t  elaborate on here. The CEO of Viber, a large  messaging app, says his platform  is popular in the Middle East, as well as South East Asia and  Eastern Europe. Most of the users (75%) have Android phones. 

Voice Commands Are RISING VOICES

Now that smart devices like the Amazon Echo and Google Alexa  use voice commands instead of  keyboards, this could become the norm. Voice messaging is praised by senders who enjoy the spontaneity and informal nature. Voice commands provide greater clarity-  less ambiguity, more emotion. And, they are superior when you have detailed instructions that are too knotty to explain by text. 

And, voice messages simply go deeper. Think of exchanges where distant lovers  (or foes) are separated over time or distance. The specific words may not count but their tone and emotion convey everything.  

Voice Commanding?

But, there are two sides to an interchange. On the other hand or (ear), it’s often cumbersome to play back voice texts.  You have to be mindful where you listen and whether you have headphones on. Otherwise a quiet private message can become loud and public. Another drawback is the recording- words get garbled and sentences run on. Mostly, it’s hard to skim for content, so audio recordings demand a greater time investment. If you shun listening to stored voice mail, you get the idea. 

But, that’s my perspective. Three years ago, Facebook’s What’s App  boasted more than 1.5 billion monthly users   (Q4.2017) so clearly the rest of the world may be on to something that North America and Europe have yet to discover.

On balance, I think that voice messages are about the user (easy to send, fast, fully expressed) while they have some imbalances on the part of the listener.

Still, they do seem like the perfect instrument when you need to convey more meaning than a text, and you don’t have time for a full blown phone call.  Perhaps when you just need to say to your family overseas “I love you” and miss you so much.