Virtual ways to connect (bonus non-sewing post!)

I’m a conference planner by day, which means my industry, like so many others, is in limbo. Normally, I’m involved in handling event registration, booking travel, arranging catering, and so on. Generally, I manage all the physical logistics necessary to get researchers and policy-makers together so that they can focus on the intellectual work they have to do. But these days, I can’t do any of that, so I’ve been working on best practices for virtual meetings. I’m still no expert (especially on the tech side), but when the Sewcialists team got talking about ways to connect with our sewing friends and others online, they asked me to share a few tips.

A few notes

Any platform is only ever going to be as good as the internet connections, the devices, and the users connecting with it. We do live in an era of online communication, but high-speed internet access and newish devices are still a privilege, as is the opportunity to learn and get familiar with tech!

Hint: If bandwidth is an issue, try dropping down to audio-only connections.

It’s difficult to discern body language in online gatherings, so it takes some practice to avoid talking over one another. While it’s easy to see who’s talking in an in-person get-together, it’s much harder in a virtual gathering, where conversation is much more confusing to follow. In person, 10 people sitting around a pub table would naturally splinter into several different conversations, and individuals would switch their attention back and forth between the various threads. That really can’t happen with online gatherings, so there has to be more focus on having just one conversation at a time.

That (and the question of bandwidth) also tends to put a limit on how many participants can really engage at once. While some of the platforms can host 100+ people, in practical terms, larger groups (more than 8-10 people, say) can actually get pretty uncomfortable. A workplace meeting, which has someone chairing and a few key people speaking, while others mostly sit and occasionally ask questions, is a very different thing from a bunch of rowdy friends chattering away at once.

Hint: If you can, make use of a headset or earbuds with a microphone.

There is a tiny lag when connecting virtually, and if your device’s microphone is picking up its speaker, that lag will be echoed back to everyone listening. It’s really challenging to speak when you can hear yourself being echoed back, a split second behind!

Video meeting solutions

These are the most business-y platforms, as they’re really designed for the business market. However, they do allow multiple people to be connected together by video, which is probably the closest thing to actually hanging out with a group of friends in-person. There ARE security concerns with them, but for the most part you’ll be okay if you don’t publicize the link to join — keep it private and you drastically lower the risk of uninvited “guests”.

Zoom is the closest thing to an industry standard that I know of. It’s free to sign up; 1:1 meetings are free, and group meetings of up to 100 people are free for up to 40 minutes. (I think that limitation is a big one — while I dislike unfocused work meetings that go on and on, social connections are all about unproductive chatter!)

You can use it via web or download the app for mobile devices. There are all sorts of fancy features like automatic switching of the video feed to whoever is talking. Participants who don’t have video (or don’t want to show off their pjs!) can join by audio only, including over a phone line. There is chat functionality during meetings that lets you share text, images, links, and so on; this is surprisingly useful when you’re trying to, say, help someone with a sewing technique!

A laptop sits on a desk. On the screen are thumbnail-sized videos of her family members, as they chat together for a virtual brunch.
Columnist Gabby uses Zoom with her family for group “brunch”

Webex is the other big industry player. I’m less familiar with it personally, but it offers comparable tools and features. Until recently, the free account only allowed meetings of up to 50, for that same 40 minutes, but they’ve increased the cap to 100, and removed the time limit.

Google Meet has a similar set of tools, and if you and your friends/family already have access to G Suite through school or work, it’s another great option. All participants have to be G Suite customers — regular Google accounts (for Gmail and so on) don’t count — but if you are, Google is extending the Enterprise-level top-tier features to all G Suite accounts.

Along the same lines, there’s Microsoft Teams, for which you and your contacts need to have Office 365 subscriptions. For me, personally, this isn’t so helpful: my sister Gillian is a teacher and has access to G Suite, but my organization uses Office 365. My friends and their organizations are similarly divided — not to mention, our parents are retired and don’t have either type of account!

Smaller-scale video chats

Google Hangouts, Facebook Messenger, and the like are free, and support video calls for smaller groups. They’re ideal for 1:1 calls, or maybe 3-4 people at most. However, they’re free and accessible, and are therefore familiar to many people. Familiarity and ease of use are important, especially if you’re trying to call older/less tech-savvy people and can’t be with them to provide hands-on tech support! There are also more fun features than the standard business solutions offer…

A screenshot from Facebook Messenger. Anne has a filter which adds a moustache, bowler, monocle, and eyebrows; Gillian's face is distorted to give her mouse cheeks and she has ears, a nose, and whiskers; and their father has giant white glasses and a distorted, pinched chin. All are laughing!
Umm. Welcome to my family. That’s me on the left, Gillian in the middle, and our father on the right. Aren’t we gorgeous? We had a group video call using Facebook Messenger and got a little carried away with the filters. Hey, who needs a haircut or makeup when you can just use a filter? Ha!

FaceTime does allow small-group video calls, but only for those on Mac/iOS platforms. If the people in your circle are Apple users, then it’s a great option because it’s a native app and again, that familiarity factor is key. However, if your group is split, then it automatically excludes non-Apple folks.

Whatsapp is another option for 1:1 video calls, but I don’t believe it handles group video calling at this point. It’s platform-agnostic, though (as are Hangouts and FB Messenger).

One-way video with text chat

If you’re more interested in broadcasting content (or following someone who does), live-streaming (via YouTube, Instagram, or Facebook Live) is great. There are some amazing concerts, art tutorials, and so on, being created around the world right now. The audience can message via text-based chat and the host can respond in real time — but be warned that it takes more coordination than you think to follow the comments rolling in AND talk live to a camera — never mind also playing an instrument or sewing or whatever! It seems to work best when there’s a small team involved, with someone to do the performance/demonstration, and someone else filming and monitoring the messages. This is what one of my favourite yarn dye studios has been doing:

Audio-only calling

There is a huge range of audio-only options as well, from enterprise-level conference bridges to audio calls on any of the platforms I’ve already mentioned. Audio does take less bandwidth than video, though the emotional immediacy of the connection can also be more limited.

I do want to mention Discord here. It’s a platform that was built for gamers, so they could chat while playing online together. You can use it on the web or download desktop and mobile apps. You can create a “server” (akin to a “workspace” on Slack) and invite your friends to join. It’s a little bit like a self-contained social network, where you can have as many text channels for chatting and posting pictures and GIFs as you like, within your community. Each server also has a voice chat channel automatically (and more can be added).

My knitting group, which has been meeting in person every Thursday night for over a decade, has switched over to a “virtual knitmob” session every Thursday on Discord. We use the voice chat feature, and also use the text channels to share pictures of what we are doing, links to the patterns, and so on. We’ve been using the text channels on Discord, and Google Hangouts too, for many years, so that hasn’t changed, but being connected and able to hear each other’s voices is surprisingly moving during this time of isolation.

Let us know in the comments how your sewing groups (and other communities) are connecting online during these challenging times! Stay home if you possibly can — and stay healthy, friends!

Anne is a conference planner at a Canadian think tank, an occasional knitting designer, and the lead copy-editor at the Sewcialists. You can check in on her and her rescue dog at @anniebeeknits.