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At first, it seemed that online meetings were a stopgap response to a worldwide crisis but now there’s a sense that they’re here to stay. The message of AA has not altered over the years, but the Fellowships have always been ready to use technology to adapt to the needs of a changing world, often to great advantage.
When Bill W met Dr. Bob in 1935, there were no personal computers or mobile phones nor any public television (though the technology had been invented). The genius of the founders of AA (and its subsequent spin-offs) was to produce a simple but very constant message of self-help through surrender, self-discovery, and spirituality that is as valid now as it was then. Since that first meeting, the AA message has remained a constant beacon in a fast-changing world with the Twelve Steps as the guide. But there is no reason why the manner in which that message is delivered should not change. Twelve Step fellowships recognise this and have moved quite swiftly to adapt some of their methods.
Carrying the Message
The Twelve Traditions were formulated in 1946 in response to the need to clarify beyond doubt the aims and working practices of the Fellowships. Developments in methods and adaptability to change would appear to come under Tradition Five: ‘Each group has but one primary purpose – to carry its message to the alcoholic who still suffers.’ In addition, Step 12 of the Twelve Steps talks about the importance of carrying the message: ‘Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to alcoholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs.’
The Message of Bill W
As early as 1960, Bill W himself a canny businessman had recognised the way the world was changing when he wrote almost prophetically, in 1960: ‘A vast communications net now covers the earth, even to its remotest reaches… nothing matters more to AA’s future welfare than the manner in which we use the colossus of modern communication. Used unselfishly and well, it can produce results surpassing our present imagination.’ (The AA Grapevine, November 1960). He would not have had the internet specifically in mind because the term had not yet been invented but he could see the way things were going.
The Early Internet
AA meetings first went online in the 1980s using bulletin boards (an early form of a chat room where messages could be posted and read, and views exchanged) through dial-up modems, and the relatively few personal computers in existence made this cumbersome. Meetings progressed to e-mail groups in the 1990s. The first email AA group, Lamp-lighters, was formed in 1990 and has been met by email continuously since. Online groups today mostly use video conferencing, phone conferencing, and chatrooms.
The coronavirus pandemic speeded up the process and caused nearly everyone to adapt their daily lives in response to restrictions on personal contact. Technology use has expanded hugely. Mobile phone communications, for example, have increased since the pandemic. The internet and the sheer power of modern devices make it simple to arrange many things online besides meetings – home deliveries of food or anything else for example, including large amounts of alcohol. Addictions of all kinds are on the increase including alcoholism (and of course shopping, itself can be an addiction). But addicted people have mostly learned (sometimes the hard way) how to be inventive and have adapted well in recovery too. Meetings around the globe moved online in large numbers at the start of 2020 – it was the obvious thing to do, and the technology was all in place. Had the pandemic and consequent lockdown struck in say, 1970, one wonders how the fellowships would have coped – probably the telephone would have become the main focus.
The Technology Today
AA websites, both national and local are now commonplace. They receive a huge amount of traffic. AA literature including the Big Book can be downloaded digitally. Telephone and video meetings were in use before the pandemic but increased greatly following the first lockdown in the spring of 2020.
And since the start of the Covid pandemic in 2020, many meetings of AA and other twelve-step fellowships have gone online, the most popular platform being Zoom. People had already used Zoom and Skype for AA meetings and were able simply to expand what already existed.
Benefits of Online Meetings
for old people, those with personal mobility problems or those not able to access transport, and people who are ill, or short of time due to work or family commitments, a Zoom meeting is a real advantage. Again, for newcomers or people who struggle to stay sober from hour to hour, the availability of endless meetings at the click of a few keys is immeasurable. Online meetings can also be a great resource for people just starting in the fellowships or thinking about quitting their addiction. The advantages are summarised as:
- Increased meeting availability
- Increase in newcomers
- Lack of physical deterrents
Disadvantages of Online Meetings
While the convenience and ease of online meetings are undeniable, some say that they long for the intensity of physical presence:
Members of AA say they miss the in-person meetings where people often hug and hold hands. They say the stay-at-home orders to combat the novel coronavirus have created additional feelings of isolation, which those addicted to alcohol already are facing. And they are worried that people who want to join AA might have trouble finding a meeting or feeling comfortable joining a Zoom call where most everyone else generally knows each other. (Washington Post, July 2020)
Members also worry that some signs of distress don’t show up so easily online. You don’t readily see tremors or perspiration that might indicate a person suffering withdrawal, for example. Watching a screen in your own home also makes distractions easier to find, so a lot of people end up ‘half-attending’ while perhaps keeping an eye on the cooking or the kids, or even the family pet as well. All this can be summarised as:
- Technology issues
- Less real connection
- Less structure and efficiency
- Privacy issues
Do Hybrid Meetings Work?
Some groups have turned to the hybrid format where a physical meeting in the traditional form is combined with an online version. This can work well provided there is planning, good practice, and technical expertise available. For those wishing to organize hybrid meetings, there are a number of useful online guides (another advantage of technology) and case studies.
Extending the Concept of Service
Established Fellowship members may need to adapt slightly their ideas of the meaning of service in the light of these developments so as to include the idea of providing technical expertise in electronic communications. Certainly, there will be a need in some groups for this.
Ways of Optimising Online Meetings (For You and Others)
To achieve the best experience, which usually means getting as close as possible to a real face-to-face meeting, we recommend the following:
- Download the official Alcoholics Anonymous Online Meeting Guide and follow the recommendations.
- Take privacy issues seriously – think carefully before sharing your phone number in the chatbox, for example.
- Whenever possible, keep your webcam on so that you’re able to participate as fully as you can in the experience. Conversely, keep yourself muted as much as possible while others are speaking so as not to spoil their experience.
- Recognize how easy it is to be only half present because you have other distractions going on – make others where you are aware of what you are doing, so they don’t interrupt, and turn your phone off.
- Log into meetings before the start time and stay on after they end, so you can interact with others as much as possible.
- Ensure that you use a device that gives the best experience – a mobile phone, for example, will not give you as good a view of participators as a laptop.
Get the Help You Need
At CATCH, we understand the challenges you’re facing and we’re here to help.
Online meetings are likely to feature in recovery long after the COVID-19 pandemic becomes simply a thing of the past. They will be especially appreciated by the old and infirm and those living in remote locations. Hybrid meetings may become more common too, giving people a choice that may be especially welcome to those working long hours or living unpredictable lives where routines are hard to establish. For some old-timers, the old ways will be missed but they will also recognize the need for openness to new ideas. After all, the Serenity Prayer asks for ‘courage to change. There may be a sense that things are not the same, but they’re close enough.