Just when we thought we couldn't stuff more of our daily lives into the cloud, we met Zoom. (Sarah Hotchkiss)
“Zoom” used to be a verb that described fast movement. Physical movement—remember that?
Now it’s a place.
“Meet you in Zoom.” It’s a conference room, a neighborhood bar, a club, a classroom, a church, a therapist’s office, a place to see friends and family. Just when we thought we couldn’t stuff more daily life into the cloud, here we are, constantly Zooming.
For some of us, Zoom came out of nowhere. But Zoom Video Communications, based in San Jose, has been around since 2011. We just didn’t need it yet. The company’s eponymous product—videoconferencing software that’s fairly easy to download and use, even by the uninitiated—has rapidly become the de facto mode of communication during coronavirus pandemic, with many of us working from home.
Though Zoom the company doesn’t release download or usage numbers, Zoom the app has been the top free download in Apple’s App Store for over a week (followed by TikTok and Google Hangouts). According to the New York Times, the company is currently valued at $29 billion.
In the early stages of this cultural shift, as we slowly acclimate to our new lives on Zoom, the now-familiar awkwardness of the format has emerged.
Invariably, someone will forget to mute themselves. Invariably, someone (maybe the same someone) will also forget to unmute themselves. At least 10 minutes of every hour-long meeting is eaten up by “Can you hear me?” “You’re muted, you have to click the button.” “Is so-and-so here? I can’t see her.” “Can you mute yourself? We’re hearing some background noise.” “Who said that?” “I’m sorry, you go ahead.” “No, you go.” Ad infinitum.
People launch into poetic or encouraging speeches about the importance of continuing to do our very important work, unaware that they’ve frozen on everyone else’s screens with only garbled half-words coming through the ether. Someone attempting to use Zoom without headphones creates an echoing feedback loop that drives everyone momentarily insane.
“This really emphasizes the importance of headphones,” explains nonprofit employee Katy Kondo, who lives in Oakland and works remotely once a week as part of her regular calendar. She has long known of Zoom’s foibles. She is pro-mute and pro-headphone.
“It’s better to be muted and get that reminder than the other way around,” she advises sagely. (When muted, the software will pick up on your voice and ask you if you’d like to share your feelings publicly.)
Kondo tours me through Zoom’s features, including the “Touch up my appearance” check box (under “Preferences” and then “Video”), which creates a slight softening of one’s skin, minimizing blemishes and imperfections. It blows my mind. Check one box and you can approach your videoconferences with the confidence of someone who actually pays attention to their face in the morning.
Then there’s the virtual backgrounds, which students have creatively identified as the solution to messy rooms. One of my coworkers uses the “This is Fine” meme as his background, while another uses an image of the Park family’s living room from Parasite. (This feels appropriate; Zoom is the virtual space of late capitalism.) The software is fairly good at recognizing what’s background and what’s you, but you can create wonderfully trippy images by clicking a box claiming “I have a green screen” (“Preferences,” then “Virtual Background”) and selecting one’s face as the green screen.
In an amazing hack recently demonstrated to me, a brilliant man made a video of himself sitting in front of his computer, nodding thoughtfully at regular intervals. When he uses this looping video as his virtual background, he can step away from the computer and still appear dutifully present. (Remember, though, that Zoom has a built-in feature that can alert your boss if you’re not engaged with the screen.)
Conversely, Kondo advises those who want to be taken seriously while working from home to be minutely aware of their lighting and surroundings. “It’s really funny when you’re backlit, it looks like you’re on a weird crime show recreation,” she says. “I do believe in setting up a space. Is there a mirror behind you? Are you fully conscious of everything that’s in view? If you wear glasses, can you see a reflection in them?” She notes that while you may appear small on your own screen, that’s not the case for everyone—details like an explicit book spine on the shelf behind you can be rendered large on your boss’ screen.
But enough of work. What about the eight hours of the day reserved for recreation that are now prime Zoom hours? In the past two weeks I’ve had Zoom cocktails with friends, Zoom dinner parties, Zoom game nights. A Zoom book club meeting looms in my future. Zoom dating is a thing. A colleague and her friends even organized a Zoom Whitney Houston karaoke party.
And it’s not just Zoom. My previously Luddite family is FaceTiming. Google Hangouts have been requested and answered mid-meal. I gaze at people’s slightly pixelated faces on computer and phone screens all day long. It’s exhausting being so visibly in touch.
“At some point you’re like, why aren’t I on a phone call?” Kondo says. “Right now because we’re isolated it does feel special. But sometimes a phone call is just fine, and sometimes you’re overcomplicating it by making it a video call.”
As we end our Zoom interview that likely could have been a phone call, Kondo has a hopeful thought: That our time spent on Zoom together in these shelter-in-place weeks will bring us a greater understanding of our fellow Zoomers’ private lives. And with that, we’ll grow more empathetic towards one another.
“You become really transported into where the other person is,” Kondo explains. “You’re aware of their larger environment in a way you wouldn’t be before.”
Flattened onto screens, we may all become more three-dimensional.
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