Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios
The rapid trajectory of videoconferencing service Zoom has entered a new phase: What started as a social lifeline during the pandemic, and then became an object of privacy and security concerns, has now become a grind.
Why it matters: Zoom is wearing a lot of us down, and as our era of enforced online work and socializing drags on, we're all going to have to learn how to better conserve our physical and psychological energy.
There are several reasons why videoconferencing is so exhausting.
1. We're using it for everything now. It would be one thing if we only used Zoom for team meetings and one-on-ones at work. But Zoom is now the go-to tool for informal social gatherings and virtual happy hours, family events and religious services, not to mention kids' online classes, doctors' appointments and perhaps a therapy session to process it all.
- Pushing all the different facets of our lives through the same media channel means we lose the context-resetting that happens when we move, say, from office to after-work bar.
- We also end up sitting way too much.
2. Videoconferencing imposes cognitive and psychological frictions and aggravates social anxieties. As experts in human-computer interaction point out, using Zoom means putting on a show for others without being able to rely on the cues we primates depend on in physical encounters.
- There's usually a slight audio lag, as well as mute-button mistakes and "your internet connection is unstable"-style dropouts.
- By showing us our own image as well as others', Zoom ensures that we will critique ourselves in real time.
- We're also often opening a chunk of our homes for others to view, and that can trigger social worries (something that is also a big issue for kids in online classes).
- On top of standard-grade performance anxiety, the "big face" image that Zoom uses by default in its "speaker view" can trigger a "fight-or-flight" surge of adrenaline, writes Jeremy Bailenson, founding director of Stanford's Human Computer Interaction Lab.
- If you switch to the "Hollywood Squares"-style "gallery view," you're confronted with a sea of separated faces, which is not how evolution has adapted us to group interactions.
- As L.M. Sacasas observes, you can't really achieve true eye contact with anyone: If you look right into someone else's eyes, you will appear to them as if you aren't looking right at them — to achieve that, you have to look right at the camera.
- Nonetheless, the whole experience of a videoconference feels to us like an extended bout of direct staring at other people staring back at us. That's draining, which is why it's not what actually happens when we meet in person, where we only occasionally look right at one another.
3. Zoom is exhausting because, right now, everything is exhausting.
- The reason we're all on videoconferences now is that our lives have been turned upside down. That's tiring in itself.
- Also, Zoom fatigue could result from the simple fact that every videoconference serves as a reminder of how our lives have changed, how much we may have lost already, and how unlikely it is that things will ever "return to normal" — as Evan Selinger writes in Medium's OneZero.
Our thought bubble: Not everything needs to be a Zoom meeting. Phone calls still work fine too.
The bottom line: Once you tire of certain things, it means that you are tired of life.
- Samuel Johnson famously said that about London.
- No one has ever said it about videoconferencing.