A group of friends, all ETHS graduates, participate in a Zoom call to bridge the geographic divide that separates them. Pictured, top row, L-R: Katherine Page (Leadville, Col.), Brigit Larson (Chicago), Anne Randhava (Chicago); middle row, L-R: Monica McCarthy (Austin, Tex.), Marie Semla (Los Angeles, Cal.), Genevieve Kapche (Mulhouse, France); bottom row, L-R: Michelle Altman (Denver, Col.); Natalie Fenn (Providence, R.I.), Angelique Mukandamage (Paris, France) Photo by Heidi Randhava

Within weeks after the first reported case of coronavirus in the United States on Jan. 21, video conferencing replaced in-person meetings in board rooms, classrooms and living rooms. Zoom, currently the world’s most popular videoconference tool, saw the number of daily meeting participants jump from 10 million in December 2019 to 200 million in March 2020, according to metrics shared in a blog post written by Zoom Video Communications, Inc. CEO Eric S. Yuan.

Among the skyrocketing number of mainstream Zoom users are nine Evanston Township High School alumnae (’07) who grew up together in Evanston. Now living in eight different cities on two continents, the group recently held a Zoom meeting to catch up and share their experiences amid the ever-shifting COVID-19 crisis. The opportunity for a virtual get-together was a welcome gift.

“It’s a totally new and startling time. And we’re trying to figure out how to support each other as we experience this pandemic differently. Through video-conferencing we can feel more connected through it all, even if we can’t be in the same room to offer a hug or share a laugh,” Zoom caller Monica McCarthy, a licensed master social worker in the Texas Department of Housing and Social Affairs in Austin, told the RoundTable.

Although the group of friends is separated by geographic distance, Zoom calls help bridge the gap by making it possible to hear each other’s voices and see each other’s facial expressions in group gatherings, with each participant occupying a space in a “Brady Bunch” style layout. High- definition video seamlessly shifts to show whoever is speaking.

Zoom has a relatively small learning curve. Anyone can download and install the application on a computer or mobile device to host a meeting, or join someone else’s meeting by simply clicking a link shared by the host, to join through their web browser or mobile app. To host a meeting, users need to create a Zoom account – which is free for a basic account. Nonpaying users can host calls up to 40 minutes each and allow up to 100 participants on a call. So it is not surprising that the platform has earned a reputation as a reliable, easy-to-use videoconference tool.

Zoom’s record growth has not come without challenges related to privacy and security concerns. Zoom-bombing, described by PCMag.com as “bad actors looking for vulnerabilities and other ways to exploit the app,” is now a widely known term. There are documented instances of individuals exploiting a screen sharing feature that was not locked by the meeting host to put up offensive and racist content for everyone on the Zoom call to view. Fortunately, there are some strategies that Zoom users can employ to ensure that your virtual meetings are safeguarded.

PCMag.com is among the tech magazines that have published Zoom security tips. Here are their “10 Ways to Secure Zoom!”

  • Use a unique ID for large or public Zoom calls. When you schedule a Zoom meeting, look for the Meeting ID options and choose “Generate Automatically.” Doing so plugs up one of the biggest holes that Zoom-bombers have exploited.
  • Require a meeting password. Give the password out only to those who have replied and are credible. To password-protect a meeting, start by scheduling a meeting and checking the box next to “Require meeting password.”
  • Create a Waiting Room. When participants log into the call, they see a Waiting Room screen. The host can let them in all at once or one at a time. If you see names you do not recognize in the Waiting Room, you do not have to let them in.
  • Only the hosts should share their screen. You can enable this setting in advance as well as during a call.
  • Create an “Invite-Only Meeting.” Only those you have invited can join the call, and they must sign in using the same email address you used to invite them.
  • Lock a meeting once it starts. While the meeting is running navigate to the bottom of the screen and click “Message Participants.” The Participants panel will open. At the bottom, choose “More > Lock Meeting.”
  • If needed, kick someone out or put the person on hold. During the call, go to the Participants panel on the right. Hover over the name of the person you want to exit the meeting, and when options appear, choose “Remove.”
  • Disable the camera of anyone being rude or inappropriate on video. The host can open the Participants panel and click on the video camera icon next to the person’s name.
  • Prevent animated GIFs and other files in the chat if desired. In the chat area of a Zoom meeting, participants can share files, including images and animated GIFs – only if you let them.
  • Disable Private Chat. Open Settings in the Zoom web app (it is not in the desktop app). On the left side, go to “Personal > Settings.” The click in “Meeting (Basic).” Scroll until you see “Private chat.” When the button is gray, it is disabled.

Practical advice that did not make PCMag.com’s list can be found in “Zoom Etiquette from Emily Post’s Very Chill Great-Great-Granddaughter,” by Madison Malone Kircher.

Guidance offered by Lizzie Post, who along with her family runs the Emily Post Institute, includes look behind you to see what other people will see on the screen; mute yourself when not speaking if background noise is distracting; and be “pro pants”— you never know when you’re going to have to hop up and chase your dog mid-Zoom.

Writer Christopher Null describes Zoom as “the 800-pound gorilla” in the industry, in an article titled “6 Popular Videoconferencing Tools Compared,” published on April 10 in Wired Magazine. He lists the most common and popular video chat/conference systems as: Apple FaceTime, Skype, Zoom, Google Hangouts, Houseparty and Microsoft Teams. Mr. Null does not make predictions about the future of Zoom in his article.

“There’s no shortage of videoconferencing tools on the market, and the app you might be asked to use next may well not appear on this list of six key players,” wrote Mr. Null.

During the coronavirus pandemic, these communications tools have helped fulfill the fundamental human need for social connection. The ripple-effect might include changes that are now being seen in their beginning stages: widespread adoption of remote working and tremendous growth in online education. The silver lining could be a long overdue focus on closing the digital divide created by lack of Internet connection and lack of access to internet enabled devices such as laptop computers in rural and low-income homes across the globe.

Heidi Randhava is an award winning reporter who has a deep commitment to community engagement and service. She has written for the Evanston RoundTable since 2016.