In Defence of Zoom
We’re all weary of Zoom, but we should recognise the value of video conferencing in supporting disadvantaged communities, and in enabling researchers to engage with groups that are traditionally hard to reach.
15 months into the pandemic, it seems safe to say that we’re all heartily sick of Zoom. Weekly virtual quizzes have gone the way of making our own sourdough, and most of us dread days of back-to-back Zoom calls.
After an initial flurry of excitement that it would change how we work for the better this idealism has dissipated and many of us are itching to return to the ‘real’ thing.
Video-calling raises technical and practical challenges for research. It’s clear that organising a focus group over Zoom has different requirements from the face-to-face world: participants can’t strike up a rapport over a cup of tea, and icebreakers aren’t quite the same when people’s connections are freezing, cutting out or – inevitably – somebody’s left on mute.
But despite this, and whether out of contrarianism, pity or a mild form of ‘Stockholm syndrome’, I feel obligated to present the positive case for Zoom.
Prior to joining the Diffley Partnership, I undertook a number of studies which found, much to my own surprise and that of respondents, that many participants preferred Zoom to in-person service-delivery.
For women especially, video platforms mean no more furtive glancing at a clock and worrying about picking up the kids. For people facing financial insecurity, it saves on all-important travel costs. For participants in rural areas and/or facing limited mobility, it offers a lifeline by which to overcome isolation experienced during the pandemic. And for those lacking confidence, it allows them to join from the comfort and security of their home, with the camera turned off if needs be.
Many of the most vulnerable members of society live at the intersection of these factors and might find themselves shut out from vital services as a result.
Many of these same groups have traditionally been harder to reach and consult in research and policymaking, with their perspectives, experiences and voices side-lined in subsequent decision-making as a result. When this marginalises the most vulnerable in society, this can reasonably be seen as a failure of pluralism and democracy. Zoom can go some way towards tackling these barriers to participation: it is, after all, easier to open a laptop than take a day off work, find and pay for childcare, and/or catch multiple trains to take part in a focus group.
Video platforms also present opportunities for the wider diffusion of research findings. Online webinars allow individuals from across the country and wider world to acquire new knowledge and share in novel findings and perspectives. Caring responsibilities, financial hardship and geographical location are less salient barriers when using Zoom, and prestigious talks need no longer be the preserve of exclusive – and exclusionary – professional networks.
None of this is to say that Zoom is without shortcomings. Digital exclusion is a very real problem with significant impacts on people’s life chances and living standards. Furthermore, services like healthcare, simply can’t be delivered as effectively online, and despite financial adversity, the temptation to minimise costs through online delivery of certain services should be resisted.
There are myriad shades of grey, however, between throwing the baby out with the bathwater in a wholesale return to ‘normal’ and cutting costs through fully digitised service-delivery. In the pursuit of inclusive and incisive research, Zoom promises inclusion and convenience without the impersonality of a phone-call; and in disseminating findings, webinars allow for an inclusive, democratised and revitalised approach to knowledge-sharing.
Used judiciously and appropriately, video platforms offer a promising route map to more representative research, truly ‘user-centred’ services, and more pluralist policymaking.
Nick Heslop June 2021