Changing the World Using Telepresence

When members of the Elders Action Network want to meet, they don’t immediately begin booking flights, hotel rooms, and meeting sites. They often turn to Zoom, one of several videoconferencing tools that are increasingly becoming low-cost (or no-cost) go-to places for meetings that can combine onsite and online interactions.

The Network, primarily comprised of older activists living throughout the United States and actively engaged with each other locally, regionally, nationally, and through international travel and online interactions, includes educators, nonprofit administrators, environmentalists, writers, and others actively working together to change the world. Among the nearly three dozen representatives listed on the organization’s website and promoting positive solutions to societal and environmental challenges are Michael Abkin, National Peace Academy board chairman and treasurer; Lynne Iser, founding executive director for the Spiritual Eldering Institute, founder of Elder-Activists-org, a symposium facilitator for the Pachamama Alliance, and a participant in the making of the film Praying with Lior, which explores the story of how a member of her family (her stepson) with Downs Syndrome interacts in his community of faith as he prepares for his bar mitzvah; and Paul Severance, administrative director for Sage-ing® International, is a member of Al Gore’s Climate Reality Leadership Corps.

Cross-pollination between members of the Elders Action Network and other complementary groups through teleconferencing and other tools is obvious from the most cursory exploration of the Network’s website. Severance and others are involved in Sag-ing International—another elder organization, dedicated to “teaching/learning, service, and community” in ways that involve mentoring and creating a legacy for its individual members. At least one member is also active in the Seniors Action Network. Another serves as executive director of Gray Is Green, “an online gathering of older adult Americans aspiring to create a green legacy for the future.”

Their live and archived Zoom sessions provide a dynamic example of how you can easily use what you already have—a desktop or laptop computer, or a mobile phone or tablet—to incorporate videoconferencing into your work to consistently develop communities committed to fostering positive actions regardless of where you live. Zoom—with free and low-cost versions—offers them a dynamic social media tool that creates an onsite space for workshops, book discussion groups, webinars, and monthly community conversations among members of the organization’s “Elder Activists for Social Justice” and “Elders Climate Action” groups. In the live sessions, participants can see any colleague using a webcam and can hear any colleague enabling the audio capabilities of his or her computer or mobile device. Zoom, like many other video-conferencing tools, offers visual options including a screen filled by the image of the person speaking; a screen that has thumbnail images of all participants using their video feed; sharing of material (including slide decks) from a speaker’s desktop; and a live chat function that allows for backchannel conversations augmenting what is taking place in the main audio feed.

Some of the community conversation recordings are archived so the life of those meetings/conversations extends far beyond the live events themselves to engage others who are interested in but unavailable to participate live during the recordings.  They become part of the seamlessly interwoven conversations you, too, can be having with members of your own community.

As members of the Elders Action Network have discovered, you don’t need to be physically present with your colleagues to have “face-to-face” conversations. Using Zoom or other videoconferencing tools can, under the right conditions, make participants feel as if they are in the same space, having productive, community-building interactions regardless of where each participant is physically located. Recordings that are well produced can even leave asynchronous participants feeling as if they are/were in the live sessions. (I have repeatedly found myself reaching, without thinking, toward my keyboard to respond to comments in a chat feed before remembering that I am trying to respond to a live conversation that ended days, weeks, or even months earlier.)

In many ways, Zoom offers a great contemporary example of how your onsite and online interactions are increasingly merging if you take time to explore how Zoom, Skype, and other videoconferencing tools can create a sense of presence—telepresence or virtual presence—that creates engaging, global spaces where activists work together to foster social change. When you begin exploring the possibilities of collaborating online through the use of telepresence tools—those ever-evolving platforms including Skype, Zoom, and Shindig that, when used effectively, can make you feel as if you are in the same room with people who can be sitting on the other side of your state, your country, or the world—you discover what so many others before you have realized: our options for communicating with each other regardless of our physical locations are continuing to evolve rapidly in ways that can make our work easier than would otherwise be possible.

Exploring the technical side of telepresence tools provides a somewhat cold, efficient understanding of what they can offer you and those you serve. Actually seeing them used or using them yourself to achieve concrete results carries you right where you need to be: understanding that they can create a sense of presence and engagement that further expands the breadth and depth of your community, your levels of engagement, and the size of the community in which you work, live, and play. And remember: play, as always, is a key element of using these tools to their fullest potential; bringing a sense of playfulness to the ways in which you incorporate them into your change-the-world efforts is a surefire way to use them to produce results rather than making them the focus of your work and, as a result, detracting from rather than supporting what you and your colleagues are attempting to accomplish.

N.B. — Paul is currently writing Change the World Using Social Mediascheduled for publication by Rowman & Littlefield in 2019. This is the sixteenth in a continuing series of excerpts from and interviews for the manuscript in progress.

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