Recently I was a participant in an online meeting with a mixed group of individuals from different organizations. I saw a couple of people enter the virtual room whom I knew and hadn’t seen in a while. We were in Zoom so I headed over to the chat panel to find their name in the Everyone dropdown list to send them a private chat message to say hi. I soon discovered that the meeting hosts had shut down private messaging to anyone other than the hosts.
Not being able to connect with colleagues in the virtual room via a quick sidebar social conversation was disappointing, and I’ve pondered a little about the reason why private chat wasn’t enabled in that meeting. It could have been a simple oversight of the organization related to their Zoom settings, but it could also have been an intentional choice to lock private chat down. I couldn’t help but wonder if, similar to the decision that some faculty make to ban students from bringing mobile devices to the face-to-face classroom, was private chat disabled in an effort to try to force people to pay more attention to the main conversation?
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t spend entire virtual meetings privately chatting with other participants while the real meeting is taking place around me. I know my brain couldn’t handle this type of switch-tasking, and I might as well not be in the meeting if I were to make that choice. But to not have a vehicle to socially connect – even for a few brief moments – with someone else in the room was a real loss. I have many colleagues in my field who live in different geographical locations. Even if COVID wasn’t going on, I wouldn’t get much of a chance to see these people in person. Having one option of a social space through Zoom’s private chat (especially when people are racing to and from meetings and don’t have time to connect before or after) gives us a small way to connect and keep our friendships strengthened. Unless someone takes it away.
In the short virtual workshop I facilitate called Beyond the Ordinary: Getting Creative in Virtual Facilitation, I lead participants through an activity specifically using private chat. I’ve leveraged the advantages of turning on private chat by intentionally designing and facilitating an activity with it to encourage social connections to happen. (And people love it!) Just like with the issue of mobile devices in the classroom, I fall firmly on the side of allowing participant choice over the matter. And because I know my main focus and intention to create an engaging and participatory online experience should help participants not overruse the “distraction” of private chat. Allowing – and yes, even inviting and intentionally encouraging – connection among participants using private chat as a social space at the very least and as a deeper intentional activity in a meeting or workshop can help strengthen our ties to each other and help build trust and community in the virtual room.
Not sure how to set your Zoom Pro account so that chat is enabled, both the main chat and the ability for participants to private chat each other? Login to your web-based account at https://zoom.us/ and click on My Account. Choose Settings on the left hand side. Scroll down to In Meeting (Basic). Here’s what it should look like – with both buttons on right hand side turned on/blue: