Keeping in touch despite COVID-19: How did we feel each other’s presence all along?

In this two-part blog, Nathan Beltrand (BRAPEP) and Samuel Tomczyk (EUSPR) share their thoughts and thoughts of esteemed colleagues on communication via digital media and invite you to participate and build a strong foundation for future communication with early career preventionists.

As early career researchers in the EUSPR and BRAPEP, we are interested in fostering collaboration, exchanging ideas and experiences, and learning together for the betterment of global prevention efforts. Networking events like annual conferences are instrumental to this goal. However, it requires effort to support and sustain, which is why we decided to go online – due to the pandemic. We then noticed changes in the way we communicate using digital media, but there is still a long road ahead. 

Part 1

Is presence something inherently physical – or does the feeling of presence transcend the physical sensation? If so, how does it affect our social interactions, our personal and professional lives, once circumstances force us to rethink our established concepts. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we NEED to think about how we define “contact”, and how we “keep in touch” as globally connected preventionists. For example, previously, meetings equaled lectures, courses, round tables … but can presence, nowadays, also be found in a recorded video?

Here we explore some experiences and insights regarding the way the pandemic has influenced our communication patterns. Following the last EUSPR conference in Ghent, we made plans about how to keep in touch and interact in new ways. But, alas, 2020 had different plans.

The past: Coffee break in Ghent, 10th EUSPR conference, Ghent

In 2019, at the 10th EUSPR conference, early careers started to talk about some possibilities to capture communication and knowledge during the three days of a conference. Through intense discussion, current practices and concepts about prevention are reviewed at each meeting and talk. More than that, we connect with interesting people and relive incredible moments, coffees and exchanges with researchers and practitioners.

So in 2019, there were lots of ideas running around to amplify our connections – maybe just excited and willing to share, maybe stimulated by the potential of online tools in accomplished training, some early careers started to open “pandora’s box” unwillingly. We started to think about the possibilities of interlinking digital tools and communication platforms with existing communication channels, we thought about making the conference more sustainable and more appealing in the end by moving more and more aspects to tentative digital formats. We also talked to other early career and experienced researchers, with mixed results. On the one hand, there were some great posters and presentations that practically nobody got to see – one could simply not attend every session and there was not much time to talk about everything: Is there a possibility to present and discuss posters with more time in between conferences or sessions?

On the other hand, we enjoyed lots of new ideas, inspiring coffee breaks at the beautiful university of Ghent, and things were running fine. Why would we try to make it different? Why invest energy to build some new ways to change an apparently great system?

The present: Blog post and Follow-up conversations

Still in Ghent, willing to share this experience with those who could not be there physically, Elena and Nathan made a video for our social network. “One could say that Elena was like the “Animo” of this creative moment, turning our ideas into actions. In a spontaneous attempt, she asked some attendees of the conference how they would describe their meeting in a few words – see what happened here.

In hindsight, this was a pleasurable experience, that became somewhat distant in the actual context of the pandemic and led to seemingly paradoxical implication:

  • “What is less means more”: physical encounters became more relevant and meaningful as distancing regulations and contact restrictions were imposed,
  • Similarly, online and distance activities became more important to maintain learning and exchanges, or even, to survive. For the human being is social – so the challenge was set.

To bridge the gap between the desire for social interaction and the reality of a social threat, we thought about different ways to connect, and collaborate. Via the internet, everyone can share experiences, produce and share knowledge, information and affirmation. Consequently, this first part is also a trial of a collaborative post, trying to amplify the dialogue and co-creation, looking to keep participation and exchange going for part two. We invited some contributions to comment on this subject and we invite you to comment, as well. Here are two impressions to get the discussion started.

Zili Sloboda notes:

Presence-Being Present: What does this mean? How does this impact professional exchanges?

The current pandemic with its masks, social distancing, restricted activity outside of the house, ‘work from home’, and unemployment has had a major impact on what humans crave and need–contact with other humans. Within the professional context, we have made these contacts through publications and conferences or meetings, where we can see faces and ‘read’ body language. Perhaps we were missing something that the recent virtual world has made clear.

First, and to me is particularly important is a difference between ‘social’ and ‘physical’ distancing. Our concern should be on the latter with reference to COVID 19 and the transmission of other viruses and microorganisms through airborne droplets. We can overcome the social distancing that is a consequence of physical distancing through our access to the internet, phone, and other related forms of telecommunication. But we must rethink how to use these tools effectively.

We are all becoming experts with Zoom, GoToMeeting and the many other platforms for conferencing available. We all complain about them, but they offer the opportunity to see faces, to discuss and with more familiarity, we are all becoming more relaxed and open with our thoughts and comments. We are learning new skills to establish an open, yet supportive environment. We are learning to read ‘new’ body language. We can now see the ‘eyes’ of our colleagues. To me that has been amazing as somehow I feel more connected with them.

Samuel Tomczyk notes:

Presence and prevention science

For some time now, I am thinking about the forms and meaning of “presence” in modern times and its implications for prevention science. While being present can refer to a state of mind, a temporal or spatial descriptor, and of course physical interaction, it has received more attention over the past years, with the re-introduction of so-called immersive technologies like virtual reality as home-based devices with an enormous reach and seemingly enormous potential for prevention, but also responsibility.

In this area, the scientific literature discusses the phenomenon of sense of presence as influenced by perceived spatial presence, embeddedness, and interactivity, leaning on the similarities (and differences) of virtual vis-à-vis “real” environments. This knowledge can be harnessed to manipulate perceptions and perspectives, provide training grounds and life-like simulations. In principle, this allows prevention researchers to recreate complex or high-risk environments that allow for repeated exposure or training, regardless of physical context and capability.

But how does this capture the feeling of “being present”? What are short-term and long-term psychosocial consequences of replacing – or complementing – physical presence with virtual presence? And how does this affect people that are not able to afford or perform in virtual environments – does this lead to further digital divide, perhaps even a divide within the digital world (where aspects like cyberbullying also come to mind)?

This topic has rarely received as much attention as during the COVID-19 pandemic, and so far, it seems as though virtual presence can fulfil some of our needs but not others, and it can elicit creative social processes in some areas but not others. It is too early to make conclusions, but going forward, we should pay more attention to the questions what presence really means to us: How do our virtual selves correspond to previous real-world self-concepts? How does this affect our work and daily lives as prevention researchers and practitioners? And how can we support future generations in developing and maintaining a healthy balance – while we, ourselves, might also be looking for it?

 

If you are interested in joining this discussion – you are very welcome to share your thoughts with the EUSPR community at: https://padlet.com/samueltomczyk/pfgjjoaokg5a8jad

This padlet reflects the ECF pre-conference workshop at the upcoming EUSPR conference (29th September, 13:00-14:30), which brings together communication science and preventive psychology to discuss issues of digital detox and digital prevention. The padlet will stay open until the end of the conference and provide an opportunity to anonymously share learnings from the past two years and inspire thoughts for future actions of societies like the EUSPR.

The future: Part 2

What are your impressions on this subject? Do you agree with Zili or Samuel? Do your experiences differ? Please write share your notes and perceptions in the comments section. Soon we will post the second part of this text, with more reflections on the pandemic, (possible) online collaboration, and the way forward – will we see you there?

 


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