Zooming to the Rescue

Not just Zoom, either. Over the past few weeks, I bet I’ve done just about every platform, program, site, service, from Bluejeans to WebEX, Crowdcast to Streamyard. But, the same way Skype USED to be the default-term for your Jetson-y video call, so, now, “Zoom” seems to be. The fact that it’s a real and actual verb, with conjugations we don’t have to make up on the fly, probably doesn’t hurt. And, yeah, it’s insecure as can be, I hear, but it’s kind of that facebook tradeoff: you know they’re selling your data and tracking you like crazy and making you into a product, but still, right? Which, I should say: facebook live or -chat or whatever IS the one service I haven’t yet tried, as I’m not there anymore. But I have been using Zoom, and lying to myself that because I’m on a Mac, I’m safe. It’s kind of like saying that, because you met him or her at the gym instead of the bar, that that surely means you won’t catch anything, right?

Anyway, you can’t click on the internet anymore without stumbling into another Zoom how-to video. I’ve watched a few, they’re helpful. The fails much more so: all the people standing up in boxers. So, in these coming sort-of bulletpoints, I’ll try not to cross that same ground TOO awful much:

Yes, wear pants, unless it’s that kind of call. Or, I should say: wear something you don’t mind being on camera in? I say this because, doing an interview/class visit thing the other day, the person on the other end noticed something in my background, asked me to go get it, bring it closer for all to see. I of course did—how not to? I mean, we all police our background, but part of that is the distinct possibility you’ve STAGED your background. Which is to say: you PUT this talking point there. To NOT go get it now would be disingenuous. So, I did. But, thinking this was a waist-up day, I was wearing shorts. I mean, nice enough shorts, sure. They even matched my shirt, I guess (not that I’m any expert on what goes with what). But still, I did NOT want to be on-screen wearing shorts. To me, that’s not professional. So now, sitting around between calls and whatever, I keep having these cringe-y moments, where I remember that, for maybe two seconds, I stood at my desk, traipsed into the background, and was flashing leg skin. Granted, this is a me-thing, but still, for whatever’s a you-thing, maybe be prepared, and dress head-to-toe in a way that’s not going to make you cringe.

Turn your phone screen’s brightness way, way down. Because, yes, you for sure CAN sneak your phone over to check this or that if the meeting you’re in gets boring. BUT, when your phone’s all turned up to “white-hot sun,” then it’s gonna shine on your face, and everybody’ll know that you’re no longer really in this meeting. Related: be aware of the background color of whatever app or service you’re using, as it’s casting light on your face. Meaning, when you tab over to do an email or look at social media or whatever, if there’s a DIFFERENT background there, then the lighting on your face is going to flash a bit, signaling everyone to look over to your Brady Bunch square, and pay attention to the way your eyes are suddenly darting around, probably NOT in response to whatever’s actually going on in this video call . . .

➔ If you want to look interested in what’s going on in this call, then the best way to do that is to stare dead center into that tiny pinhole camera, right? Except, man, is that boring, and impossible to keep doing. So, what I try to do is just stare into the middle of the screen, even though I tend to keep my calls stacked like Hollywood Squares. Reason I do that, instead of using speaker view? Because people’s heads suddenly increasing in size by four-hundred percent is disconcerting to me. It makes me feel like they’re actually in my study, and I don’t like that. I mean, maybe if I was talking to a family member one-on-one, sure. But, just for a meeting, a work call, a panel? No thanks. It’s weird enough letting people see all the junk in my background. I don’t need the added weirdness of having a sort-of stranger in my study, too.

➔ Another me-thing: no dogs, no pets. At least in my study—other folks’, fine, cool, I don’t mind looking at them. As for why not in my camera, though, it’s just because I know Red Dragon: these sneaky killers, they clock pets, they maybe even learn their names, and then, oops, suddenly you’re dead against a wall with mirror shards for eyes. The people who let their animals into frame are much bolder and trusting than I can be. Good for them. My dogs—if there ARE any dogs (also, they have rabies and are trained to kill and only respond to my commands and often not even that)—will be scratching at the door to my study, thanks. And not only scratching, but—and I guess this is something else to guard against—having very loud panic attacks when they hear non-me voices coming from my study (HOW to ‘guard’ against that? hopefully there’s someone in the house you can txt to maybe please please please take care of this?).

➔ Oh, too: I so so SO wish that my only-months-old computer could throw me onto the deck of one of the Enterprises / do that background-greenscreen thing, but alas. The computer’s so new I can’t really justify getting a newer or fancier one, but still, if I could digitally manipulate my background, I feel like it’d be a whole undiscovered country. One nobody would like to video in to, but I’d be so happy, hurtling through space, always listening for distress signals or anomalies . . .

➔ Keep a backup mic handy. My monitor has a “display mic” that works fine . . . until it doesn’t. Every once again, whatever platform I’m using will hiccup, forget everything it thought it knew, and then I’m mute. Since that happened the first time, I now keep a Snowball (it’s from Goodwill, surely tastes like someone else’s breath, but it works) and my AirPods handy. The AirPods never fail, and, with some systems—the ones that don’t account for feedback well—they’re the only thing. Except if this call is going many-many hours, in which case wired headphones, the ones with an inline mic, would be the way to go, as you don’t want your charge to fail on you. And, me, I always use buds rather than cans, but that’s just because I feel self-conscious about wearing those over-the-ear jobs, like I’m in WWII and trying to call in an airstrike from the middle of a battlefield.

➔ Also / related: have a backup browser handy? I had one important meeting I ended up having to just dial into, as my browser didn’t play nice with whatever the software of the day was. So, now, I keep a backup browser or two already installed. They don’t know my passwords, but that’s fine—preferred—so long as I can paste a link in and go.

➔ Too? Since I’m sure Zoom isn’t the only one of these videoconfering rigs to be compromising security, I of course—shouldn’t we all?—keep a thing handy to cover my camera lens when the call’s over, and also before it’s started. I mean, that green light’s SUPPOSED to come on when/if the camera’s powered up. But, are you going to trust that? I don’t.

Two monitors: this has been the best thing I’ve discovered so far. I had a junky old one in the closet, so I hooked it up, and it’s made ALL the difference. Now, no more tabbing back and forth for notes or documents. And, some of these platforms, they can even make USE of dual-monitors. Granted, it sometimes means you’re looking into that JC Penney middle-distance, but if it keeps me from getting lost in my own windows, then I can take that hit, I think (related, at least with Zoom in the land of single monitors: tile your windows, man. you can do it either through Zoom or through your Mac. it makes things so, so much better).

➔ And, talking lighting again: whenever I’m Zooming, I try to keep the app window only about a third as tall as the screen, and then pushed up all the way to the top. First, this keeps me looking in the general direction of the camera, but, second, it allows me to adjust the lighting on my face (adjusted before the call, as, when possible, I always have self-view off, of course, for sanity). I just put the videoconference app in front of a bright white page of nothing, or a grey page, or a red page—you can do a lot, really. I know a lot of these how-to’s say to work facing a window, with sunlight, but I do NOT like sunlight in my study, please; I’ve seen what it does to comic books and old paperbacks, and don’t need that happening to mine, thanks. Really, my preference is just to turn all the lights off for these calls, and go by monitor-glow on my face. But that can look a little campfire tales-ish, too, I know, and I use my own voice to speak, not the Cryptkeeper’s, so, yeah, I’ll generally turn a distant lamp on. But it’s with full reluctance. The dark is so much more comfortable.

Toys: I keep so many toys just under frame. They don’t help me keep my eyes where they need to be, but they do allow me to listen. I’m the type who can’t pay attention if my fingers aren’t maniacally busy, I mean. So, I’ve got two fidget spinners, a crochet hackysack, some stretchy wristbands, a wooden thumb-twiddler, a letter opener, and two knives (all of which have been tested for sound). And, to be sure: I suspect it’s important to keep the knives from ever rising into-frame. And, really, I guess there’s four knives around my keyboard, now that I think about it. But two of them I don’t generally play with, as they’re miles too sharp for being casual with. There’s a tactical tomahawk, too, but that’s way out of bounds for videoconferencing. Well, for most videoconferencing.

Fans. Which I’m a huge fan OF, as my study doesn’t catch the a/c very well, and heats up in the afternoons. What this means is that, working late in the day up there, doing these face-to-digital-face calls, man, it would be nice to maybe not be so hot. However, I’m always afraid it’s gonna mess with the mic. I mean, most of this software tries to cancel out background noise, but, too, the less it’s having to cancel, the more bytes it can devote to its main processes, I have to imagine. Ideally, I end up with one of those bladeless Dyson fans that make zero sound, but, until then: no fans. Alas.

A SOLID cup or colored glass, so people won’t see and ask questions about what you might or might not be drinking. If they can’t see it, it’s water, right? Me, I don’t drink from water bottles for these calls, just because you generally have to tilt them high to get a sip, and making your throat vulnerable is of course, for all the wolves you’re talking to, a sign of submission. Might as well just show your belly, too. As for eating? It doesn’t bug me, but I’ve been on calls with people who turn their camera off for it. Probably just to avoid questions or interest, I guess (or, maybe they eat like the people in PKD’s Counter-Clock World . . .). I’ll sometimes palm some candy in when it’s not my turn to speak, anyway. Have taken pills too, I guess, but they look the same as candy. Oh, also: I keep cough drops handy. Sometimes you fall into a pit of coughing, can’t climb out, but can’t leave this call, either. Cough drops can save your life, save the call.

➔ Oh, and: that mute button. I kind of despise those meetings where we all have to mute ourselves, raise our hands, ask permission to speak. All the same, I’ve been to online weddings and the like lately where one person of the fifty or a hundred there is letting their cat lick the mic, and it’s . . . an issue. But, having to reach forward and unmute yourself in order to give someone the chuckle their comment deserves feels a bit canned, to me, finally. All the same, some platforms I’ve used have their sensitivity dialed such that you HAVE to mute, else each slightly-too-loud breath shifts focus to you, which is AWAY from whoever needs it, and that of course isn’t ideal.

➔ As for chat in a side window? I don’t play there much, but I see people using it, and, doesn’t bug me, anyway. However, I do feel that if the discussion is branching into two streams like that, then the ‘main’ discussion must not be exciting enough to keep everybody there. However, when it DOES bug me is when I see people using emoji and the like there (hopefully gifs-as-responses are still illegal?). Then I’m just so ragey and brimming with disgust that I can’t pay proper attention to the actual content. I want all emoji off my lawn, yes.

A nice shirt: I mean, yes, ideally you’ve planned for this, have pants or whatever ‘nice’ on as well. But sometimes you’re just diving for the study, grubbing up that link, and . . . it can really be a lifesaver if you’ve been keeping a nice shirt close to your computer. Just a default boring one that nobody’s going to think twice about, or remember. I do this. Around the house, and, I guess, just everywhere in my life where I can get away with it, I don’t wear sleeves. But that’s not proper for a meeting or for class, of course. So, I keep a sleeve-shirt close, and it even has a collar (hardly any of my shirts have collars), so I can peel out of my usual shirt(s), slither up into this one, and be meeting-ready in about ten seconds. Sure, my hair’ll be trashed from dragging two shirts across it, but nobody cares if you have to re-tie your hair back. Especially if you’re wearing a shirt with a collar. It pretty much makes you look like a businessperson, I think, like you belong on Wall Street, like you care about stocks, like you read the newspaper, like you know something about your retirement plan, or, like you have one. All this from a quick change, too. Just, remember to peel back out of it before turning back into your real self, or else, next time, you’re screwed.

Taking breaks. Because it sucks to sit down for so long. Do it or not—burn em if you got em. But, IF you do, then I’m guessing you’ll mute your mic and turn your camera off while you’re gone, such that, when you come back, you COULD eavesdrop on discussions that you probably couldn’t otherwise hear in real life, as these would be happening at the water cooler, in the restroom, whatever. So, I mean, of course don’t HAVE those discussions in a not-private place, of course. But, too, if you happen to walk back to your desk or kitchen table or porch and one’s happening—when faces blip off the screen, people feel alone, safe—then try to be a decent human and announce yourself? I mean, I don’t consider myself especially or even tangentially ‘decent,’ but still, I’m always diving for that unmute button to stage the videoconference version of a polite cough, as I don’t like hearing things that aren’t my business, as I might then feel compelled to either act on them or keep them secret, neither of which I’m much into (see the ‘not really that decent’-bit, above). Related, here: if people DO want to talk mongst themselves? In some of these programs, you can shunt them off into a waiting room or a side room, which you CAN’T spy on (so far as I know). I mean, that could also be a penalty box, but this isn’t a sport, or kindergarten, so hopefully we don’t need that. Supposed to be a professional meeting, after all (also related: what kind of kindergarten did I go to, right?) (answer: the kind where I couldn’t go to recess unless I drank my gross white milk, so, I had to sit there with it in front of me and watch everyone else out there having fun in the sun, day after day . . .).

Lock your door? I’ve never been a proponent of keeping my loved ones out of my workspace, as it could kind of breed resentment, I have to suspect: “Oh, yeah, well, dad’s ‘writing,’ I guess . . .” And it can also make for a hierarchy: this is more important than them. And it’s not. It’s just junk I’m making up, things I think are funny. So, unless my music’s wrecking their quiet spaces, I always leave my door open. I learned this from Janet Burroway. Anyway, now? I DO lock my door, just to keep people from traipsing into my background and then doing that deer-in-headlights thing. Well, that, and, also: Red Dragon, and all the bad actors out there, all of whom I guard against, none of whom I’m likely to recognize in time, which is another reason I wish I could be flying at warp 9 through the alpha quadrant . . .

And that’s what I can think of. Will add to this as more comes up. Though, as pertains to teaching and Zooming . . . well, I should qualify that: as pertains to running WORKSHOPS and Zooming, a colleague was recently talking about how if there’s under ten in the group, then Zoom’s fine. More than that and it’s pandemonium. And he’s right, of course. No human can track all the hands raised, all the muting/unmuting. However, I HAVE run in-person workshops the Clarion way, which is called something I forget, and don’t want to look up, but: each person around the room is allowed a set amount of time to say their piece, and then we move on to the next person. It works so, so well. The first time I taught at Clarion, I bucked and fought against this, said it wasn’t natural, that’s not how I teach . . . but I had to. And I’m glad I did. It COMPLETELY works. AND it allows people who can’t find a wedge of space in the discussion to speak, finally, which alone makes it worth it. Anyway, to workshop this way through Zoom or whatever, I’d recommend giving each student 45 seconds or a minute, so they really have to distill, and focus. And they can pass, don’t HAVE to speak each time. And they can just say ‘ditto’ to what previous critiquers have said, so long as that’s not their default response. And you the instructor don’t have to add onto every single point (though a wrap-up at the end’s nice). It seriously works, and keeps things ordered and moving—I’ve done it a lot in non-Clarion spaces, I mean, with workshoppers not expecting it, as a tool to keep rowdy classes in check, and: always works. It won’t feel natural at first, but the results are hard to argue with. And, if you’re the one running this session, then you can mute them if they start filibustering, which would be kind of a dream—though . . . probably an abuse of your admin-powers, too. Ideally, the THREAT of getting muted would be enough to guarantee brevity.**

As for running a lecture, though, then, I mean, the obvious solution is to record it, and work your slides in (and don’t record it fifty thousand times until it’s perfect. it wouldn’t be perfect in a lecture hall, so why should it be here?). But if you WANT to do it live, then Crowdcast might be an option. I did an event through it the other night, and really liked it (click replay at that link to see some Crowdcast in action). You’d be the face, the video feed, and everybody else is in the chat. You could either then keep up with that yourself, depending on what’s rolling in, or have someone helping you with that. You could even spotlight/bring into video this or that person with their question or point, kind of like ushering them up to the mic at a Kurt Vonnegut event.

Anyway, hopefully something here’s of help? Comment with whatever you’ve found? Oh, and, one distinct benefit of these Zoomy times is that I’ve finally had to get intimate with time zone math. I wouldn’t say I’m necessarily GOOD with it yet, but it’s always a question I ask while scheduling now, anyway. And, for the first time ever, I’ve yet to miss a meeting. And, while I may not keep a mask close by like we all learned from the Jetsons, there’s masks and there’s “masks,” too, and I think I’m nearly always wearing the second kind, thanks to the checklist above.


(*) that header img—pixelated glasses, monitor reflected in the lenses—is from this article, which I guess I didn’t read, mostly as it’s a health site, looks like.

** I haven’t mentioned recording workshop, either. case-by-case, I’d say sure, unless anyone objects (and? give them a safe, maybe anonymous space to object, of course). but, the standard way of doing this is just to have everyone write their critiques up ahead of time, post them, and then, for workshop, distill them. as for DEFENSES of whatever kind, though, my policy is no, never, no recording, the world will explode should that rite of passage be committed to any sort of tape. it should only exist in memory, so it can be aggrandized to mythical proportions or burned in effigy—maybe both, I guess. it could come to be like Harry Potter’s Mirror of Eresid, though: dangerous, unhealthy, unwholesome. not to mention legally compromising.