Last weekend, I decided we needed to have a family meeting to discuss Covid-19 with our 27- and 31-year old children. Since they live in two different cities, I used the simplest connective device: the telephone. (On either an Android or iPhone, you can connect multiple people, just by touching the + button on your keypad after one party has been connected.)
The call was reassuring in these troubling times. We discussed how my kids should handle their jobs, and what shows we were all watching. (The Matrix, Chinatown, and Love is Blind). We told each other to be careful. It was great hearing their voices. It felt important connecting as a family unit.
Tech to the rescue…
When social distancing is the rule of the day, we rely on technology to “reach out and touch someone,” as they used to say in the old AT&T long-distance ads. And in these troubling times, without lunches, coffees, games or other opportunities to connect with our friends, technology is our social and emotional glue.
…with trial and error
Zoom: The day before my family call, I’d connected by the Zoom teleconference platform to the writing school where I teach. We all practiced logging in and talking in a virtual group, learned how to share our computer screens, and the least distracting way to view the group on a computer screen (speaker view, which creates a Brady Brunch grid of participants). I’m using Zoom to teach my last three classes, and also to run an art critique group
The only trick with Zoom is that it needs to be downloaded by all participants first. If you want to host small meetings of friends, you also have to sign-up for their free plan, create a password and all that. You can create an invitation for meetings in the future, but that invitation, roughly a page of text, may scare off your technophobic friends.
I decided to test Zoom and some other interfaces on my book group. I started with the simple phone call, using + to add my friends individually. This took seconds and worked perfectly. I used the phone method repeatedly to wrangle my friends between the more complicated texts.
Zoom worked great, for three out of four of us. Two of us had it and were familiar with it, and my friend Rolla had just starting using it that day. In fact, she was, at the same time, using another device to stream her grown son’s band rehearsing in Philadelphia. “How cool am I?” she exulted. When our fourth friend hadn’t shown up after about five minutes, I checked my texts. “They’re asking for my credit card,” she despaired. (In fact, you don’t need to pay anything to use Zoom for small groups, although “meetings” are limited to 40 minutes.)
Facebook Messenger: Next we tried Facebook Messenger, which was a disaster. Only one friend could get into the video chat; she could hear me but I couldn’t hear her.
What’s App: Finally, we tried Whats App, which worked seamlessly — for those of us who had WhatsApp. Like Zoom, you have to download the app ahead of time, and you get a nice clear video feed. We didn’t try Skype, because only I had it.
Nor did we try Facetime, because that’s an Apple-only product, and I use an Android phone and a Chromebook — no Apple. I did, however, get my husband to conduct a Facetime test. He found it awkward, and the “add another participant” function isn’t in plain sight (you have to swipe up to find it). But it looked pretty much like Whats App’s clean interface when it all got figured out.
Pros and cons
And therein lies the rub. You have to pick an interface your friends and family can join. Facetime is the videoconferencing app that most people are familiar with, but it won’t work at all with your non-Apple friends. Zoom is great for small meetings, but it takes a little commitment on the part of participants. Whats App will work, but again, you need to add a little time for participants to download.
My overall recommendation is to try one of these newer technologies…but if you can’t get all your friends and relatives on one platform, or if some of your friends are still tech-shy , there’s always the telephone. Everyone has one, it’s simple and immediate, it’s easy to add a few people on the call (four other participants total for iPhone, five others for an Android) and nobody has to download anything. It’s a great default choice if you want to get in touch with several people to compare notes on books or streaming movies or just catch up.
What has your experience been any of these technologies? Let us know in the comments!