Six Reasons AA Zoom Rooms Are Inferior to In-person Meetings

by Christopher Dale

Feb. 8, 2021 –

It is a credit to the dedication of its members, and the effectiveness of its program of recovery, that Alcoholics Anonymous was able to quickly adapt to online meetings amid an unprecedented global pandemic. The rapid adoption of widespread online AA meetings – the so-called Zoom rooms – have helped millions start or maintain sobriety during this prolonged national health crisis.

But let’s face it: while Zoom rooms indeed bring value, they are a far cry from in-person gatherings. And with vaccinations commencing and the end of the pandemic on the horizon, AA groups are well-advised to return to face-to-face formats wherever possible, relegating Zoom to its fitting place as a temporary necessity rather than a new normal.

Here are six reasons why I look forward to returning to in-person meetings as soon as public safety permits.

A Digital Disconnect

A common complaint about Zoom rooms is they don’t “feel like a real AA meeting.” While vague, it’s a criticism rooted in instinct and experience.

AA is a spiritual program rooted in physicality. Even the act of going to a meeting – literally making one’s sobriety a destination – showcases the practice of placing one foot in front of the other and letting our heads and hearts follow on the road to recovery.

Once there, physical symbols are everywhere. A greeter at the door, the 12 Steps posted to display our primary purpose, rows of filling seats. Handshakes, hugs and smiles from fellow alcoholics. And as the hour begins, a reverent hush whose completeness exemplifies our total dedication to recovery. Regardless our individual concepts of a higher power, we are one.

In-person meetings also allow small acts of kindness – those mini-miracles that exemplify its members’ commitment to helping others – that don’t carry over to Zoom. For example, we’ve all seen a nervous newcomer fumble a freshly poured cup of coffee… only to have a half dozen regulars quickly assist with both comfort and clean-up.

All of this is lost over Zoom. This is why the best in-person meetings are inspiring and invigorating, while the best online meetings are a heaping pile of meh.

Another crucial difference is body language – those little non-verbal cues that, for example, let someone meandering through a rambling share know he should wrap it up. On a more positive note, the hoots, hollers and claps a newcomer receives for another day sober simply aren’t replicable online. Instead, we have a gridded screen of expressionless, often distracted faces.

This is a “takes one to help one” program whose effectiveness is severely diminished once physical togetherness is sacrificed. Even the glimmer gradually building in a newcomer’s eyes as he embraces the program – as he starts to “get it” – shines less brilliantly through a screen.

Anonymity Concerns

Anytime something conventionally done in person transitions to the Internet – shopping, work, etc. – the potential exists for privacy to be compromised. AA meetings are no exception. And for AA members, anonymity isn’t something we freely click away by accepting cookies on a webpage; it’s a founding principle so important that it’s literally in our organization’s name.  

Here, Zoom rooms are highly problematic. For starters, while some online meetings are still closed and tightly monitored for interlopers, the vast majority are “open” meetings in which attendees aren’t screened. A scenario in which anyone can attend for any reason is patently different from non-alcoholics at in-person open meetings, who are readily identifiable by one or more members as being there to support, for example, a loved one celebrating a sober anniversary.

Zoom’s app-specific features also are worrisome – particularly its tendency to show attendees’ full names under their video feeds. While it is possible for individuals to prevent their full names from being listed, many people aren’t tech savvy enough to recognize and prevent this breakdown in one of the program’s mission-critical tenets: anonymity.

13th Stepping & Cyber-stalking

A subset of concerns over anonymity is the added potential to use AA in a fashion both unintended and, for newcomers, ill-advised: as a matchmarking service.

While attempts to parlay recovery into romance certainly occur at in-person meetings, these instances are at least mitigated by decorum. Basically, everyone knows that advances of that nature are both noticed and frowned upon, which minimizes their frequency. Zoom rooms have no such self-policing in place, leaving attendees free to gawk and even stalk anyone they find attractive.

For example, the tendency for full names to appear under each person’s video streams sets the stage for a quick hop over to Facebook or Google to pore over pics, posts and other readily available data.

At best, this is an unwanted distraction or nuisance for those gathered to get sober rather than tempted or propositioned. At worst, Zoom rooms can foment a broad spectrum of cyber-creepiness, including collecting pics of pretty girls, or men signing into a women’s-only group with a phone borrowed from a female friend.

In-person meetings do a far better job of keeping the program as platonic as possible. This is especially important to newcomers, who enter sobriety with a limited and therefore urgent timeframe to accrue recovery sufficient to launch a lifelong journey of recovery.

Control Issues

With Zoom meetings, another drawback emerges due to the platform’s need for one or more hosts with complete control over the meeting’s ebb and flow. This takes a purposefully leaderless dynamic – per Tradition 2, AA groups do not grant authority to any one individual – and pushes it past the commonly observed ground rules followed at in-person gatherings.

While the host at a face-to-face meeting certainly has some say over how the meeting unfolds, the authority he wields – asking for quiet, selecting someone from a set of raised hands, keeping track of time – is a far cry from the gatekeeping, all-muting kill switch power that exists in Zoom rooms.

Two distinctions trump other concerns. First and foremost, the IT controller of a Zoom meeting has authority over who gets admitted to the room. That is highly problematic, as it is generally up to the entire group to determine whether an attendee is being disruptive, is a non-alcoholic in a closed meeting, or should otherwise be disqualified. AA is a democracy, not a dictatorship.

Nearly as important: at in-person meetings, everyone can see who is raising their hands, an organically self-policing dynamic that encourages the host not to play favorites. No such transparency exists over Zoom, where electronic raised hands are visible to the host only.

Background at the Forefront

Too often in Zoom rooms, a member’s background comes to the forefront, distracting or detracting from that individual’s message and the overall power of the meeting.

Here, one issue reflects our hyper-partisan society. For example, members have been seen with Confederate flags in the background; from the other extreme, anti-police images also have been witnessed. It’s simply too tempting and technologically easy to bring personal politics into a setting where such displays are divisive and detrimental to AA’s primary purpose.

Backgrounds can also punctuate economic inequality. To newcomers who are often financially as well as physically and spiritually desperate, seeing a 20-year AA veteran sharing from a leather couch with a glowing fire creates not aspiration but rather envy. It becomes yet another reason to feel inferior, unworthy and out of place.

Backgrounds also are frequently used to showcase just how sober someone feels he is. We’ve all seen the “Mr. AAs” with the customized, obnoxious program imagery everywhere – visual symbols of the sort of condescending, self-aggrandizing “I‘m more sober than you” nonsense that goes on far too often even at in-person meetings.

Lastly, Zoom’s very medium – the Internet – is an invitation to put AA itself in the background. Anyone who has frequented online AA meetings has seen countless tuned-out attendees obviously digitally multi-tasking. For a program that requires focus, it’s simply too tempting and easy to place AA in the background while paying more attention to social media, streaming videos or myriad other forms of entertainment.

Out of Service

In addition to the aforementioned control issues, Zoom rooms also have commitment issues – or rather, a distinct lack of them.

While marquee commitments like group hosting and featured qualifiers (at speaker meetings) still exist online, the most valuable service opportunity for AA’s most vulnerable members – newcomers – is eliminated: the coffee commitment.

Coffee commitments are, by design, a pain-in-the-ass obligation that stretches for protracted periods – three months, six months, etc. In doing so, they both lock a newcomer into getting to a regular meeting early and, critically, provide concrete, caffeinated evidence they are contributing something to the group. Coffee commitments are an investment in recovery – and ones that simply cannot be replicated online.

Other service opportunities also fall away over Zoom. These include post-meeting diner excursions, giving a carless (often via a recent DUI) newcomer a lift, or even the simple act of saving a seat for someone getting their feet wet in the program – the sort of mundane, familiarity-building gesture that can make or break someone’s early recovery.

Conclusion

While Zoom rooms have been lifesavers during an unprecedented, isolating health crisis – indeed, we’re all lucky this is occurring now rather than 20 years ago – online meetings have a dearth of intimacy compared to in-person gatherings, and also present too many opportunities for dearly-held traditions and rituals to fall by the wayside.

We all owe a healthy debt of gratitude to the men and women who so quickly and capably pivoted to hosting Zoom meetings during widespread lockdowns. But we must remember that their sterling examples of sober service are merely making lemonade from lemons. They are keeping the AA ship afloat during a 100-year storm.

AA will persevere. We will navigate this storm online for as long as necessary. But once the pandemic subsides, online meetings should return to being the exception rather than the rule.

Now if you’ll excuse me, my Zoom meeting is about to start. Here’s to accepting what we (temporarily) cannot change.

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