Brian Gregory is the founder and organizer of Virtual Drinking Skeptically, a group that uses video conferencing to provide an online social outlet for people who aren’t able to attend real-world skeptical group meetings. You can learn more about the group, and recap past chats on their blog.
It’s hard to believe that it only began back in July. There I was, a very new skeptic, but relatively savvy hacker. I had recently discovered the budding online community of skeptics and atheists on Twitter, was was wishing I had been able to attend TAM7 in Las Vegas. When they announced that the Million Dollar Challenge event would be broadcast live online, I was there, at my computer, watching the live stream and participating in the chat room, trying my best to vicariously attend the conference.
Fast forward to September, when many of the speakers that presented at TAM7 gathered in Atlanta, GA for Skeptrack at Dragon*con. Due to the success of the live streaming at TAM, they attempted to stream as many of the talks as possible. I spent my weekend watching everything that came out of Atlanta and chatting with others (on Twitter or on the video stream’s chat rooms) that were attending, or wishing they were.
A week later, when I managed to drive to NYC and attend NECSS, my first real conference, I’d already met a good number of people online who had similar interests in science and skepticism. More importantly, they seemed to be very likeable people. While I was there, I met Luis Vidal, a neuroscientist and skeptic whom I’d been talking to on Twitter for several months – my first virtual friend converted to meat-space.
I don’t remember who first came up with the idea (it was probably @Cynraven), but at the time it seemed like a natural progression from what many of us were already doing over Twitter. A few of us had discovered that there were free video chat tools available around the web, and thought we could easily throw together a video chat in order to have what we’d dubbed “Virtual Drinking Skeptically.” By the end of September, on a whim, we had the First “prototype” Meeting.
At first we thought it was just good way for us to meet people we’d already been talking to (I love how Twitter break the ice with strangers), but after attending a few local Drinking Skeptically group,s it became clear that we could meet periodically and fill the same need the real-world groups fill, for people who don’t have local groups. As the group has slowly matured, we’ve discovered that we’ve been able to build relationships, even friendships, across large physical distances – even different hemispheres.
How it works
The best way to find out about the group is to start with the blog. Every time we have a meeting I try to summarize what we’ve discussed and who’s attended, so people can follow up later with people they’ve met, or can read up on the topics discussed. This also has the side-effect of making the group feel very personal, and allows people to get an idea of what we do before jumping in.
We ‘re currently using a web browser and flash-based video chat tool called Tokbox. It allows anyone to attach to an ongoing conversation by following a link, and will add your webcam (if you use one) to an array of videos so each person can see everyone else. If you don’t have a webcam, audio will work if you have a microphone, and there’s text chat as well – or if you like you can just watch the conversation. They’re sometimes fascinating, and sometimes hilarious.
Although this system works, it does have problems. The flash application doesn’t like Linux very much, there are audio delays, technical problems with feedback, and other issues, but we seem to roll with it pretty well and almost always have fun (and usually meet someone new and interesting).
In the past four months we’ve met most every week, with people from all over the US, Canada, and even Australia and New Zealand. We usually talk about something interesting, we always have some fun, and I’ve met someone new just about every time.
The growing skeptical community, fueled by youth (and youthfulness) and the Internet, is now filled with interesting, likable, intelligent people – many are doing their own thing on a small scale, but no less important than what’s happening on the large scale. Like Grassroots Skeptics I feel that we are now sitting in this wonder place, able to discover and connect people within the movement who are all over the planet, almost effortlessly, due to the social nature of the tools, and the social focus of the group.