One month ago, I dreaded video conference calls. An invitation to a Zoom meeting was an invitation to waste your day with the most dismal type of work event. These calls invariably began with eight minutes of botched attempts to patch in the Atlanta branch, and continued with inessential messages being repeated a million times at escalating volume so remote callers could hear updates that should’ve been communicated via email.
Now, Zoom is my life. As we confine ourselves to our homes to avoid contracting and spreading COVID-19, the video-call service has become my primary method of interaction. Both The Olds and The Youngs have embraced it. The moms and dads of the world are making the most of a situation that’s left their adult children homebound, bored, and surprisingly eager to have lengthy conversations—although, of course, some parents struggle with the technical parts of videoconferencing. Millennials, meanwhile, hope that Zoom happy hours, workouts, and dates can replace actual face-to-face interaction. Zoom used to bring me to a drab conference room; now, it substitutes for lively bars and warm living rooms.
However, there are differences between seeing people in real life and seeing them in tiny boxes on a screen. While Zooming with our friends reduces the solitude of social distancing, the limitations of the format can shape our conversations in unexpected ways. We act … differently on social video calls than we do in person, sometimes in ways that surprise us. These are the eight types of people we become on Zoom.
The Unmuted Multitasker
Most participants in video calls these days are eager to turn off the rest of their lives and focus on friends. Zoom calls are a break from watching TV, doing chores, or spending inordinate amounts of time staring at terrifying line graphs. Some people, however, don’t want to put their lives on hold when they join a video chat. They want others to accompany whatever tasks they were already trying to accomplish. Soon, we’re watching them fold laundry, play Call of Duty, or turn a bunch of cans into a pot of chili.
In some ways, this is a nice arrangement. It is sweet to think that someone wants us to be with them as they complete their daily routine. The Unmuted Multitaskers provide a true glimpse into their daily lives. However, these people always forget to turn off their microphones, and inevitably make having a conversation ridiculously difficult. Within a few minutes, they’re shouting “WHAT???!” over the whirring of a blender.
We may try to ignore Unmuted Multitaskers and engage in conversations among ourselves, but that becomes impossible when they’re walking three barking beagles and a howler monkey past someone simultaneously using a jackhammer and a lawnmower. Apparently, this person uses a miniature chainsaw to cut up fruits and vegetables.
Sometimes, Unmuted Multitaskers think they’re doing us a favor by briefly stepping away from the chat. What they’re actually doing is leaving us with the sounds of them vacuuming while listening to Slipknot.
The Microphone Misunderstander
Even though the people you talk to on Zoom may live thousands of miles away, you can speak at a normal volume and your computer’s microphone will transmit your voice to them clearly. Incredible, I know. But not everyone understands this. I suspect some people also failed to grasp this concept in the early days of telephones.
This is not a huge problem for the people on the other end of a video call. After all, we can adjust our computers’ volume levels accordingly. The person this affects most is whoever happens to be quarantined with the Microphone Misunderstander. Look at the expression on your buddy’s girlfriend’s face as he howls, “IT’S FUNNY, I NEVER THOUGHT I WOULD GET THIS INTO BAKING!” If you look closely, you can see the wisps of her hair blown back by sheer force as he bellows, “IT’S SO SOOTHING!!!”
The Manicured Tableau
I have shaved once since my quarantine period started. I show up to video calls wearing exactly what I was already wearing: stained hoodies, college T-shirts previously reserved for laundry days, a flannel that my dog bit two buttons off of when she was a puppy. After my first social-distancing group chat with high school friends, my girlfriend and I got into a fight because of my unthinking choice to sit directly in front of a massive pile of empty cardboard boxes. (“Now your friends think we live in GARBAGE!”)
But every video chat has at least one person whose setup is impeccable. Are they dressed up to steal the show with a big presentation at work or to meet a hot date at a swanky bar—or both? Their hair looks clean! Is that makeup? I think they actually put on makeup for this!
Behind their head is a series of framed pictures and paintings that perfectly complement each other. You can see a shelf filled with books that are both intellectually impressive and aesthetically pleasing. You probably wouldn’t be surprised if Adam Schefter bumped them out of the way to deliver a news hit for SportsCenter. Our window into Manicured Tableaus’ lives is 3 inches high and 4 inches wide, and every pixel is perfect.
This type of Zoom user makes you wonder: Does this person truly have complete control over their life, living in a wonderland where every edge is meticulously smoothed? Or would we see a pile of dirty clothes and takeout containers if we tilted the camera about 3 inches to the left? Sure, this person put on makeup for the video chat—but are they wearing pants?
The Tony Reali
Zoom gives call hosts the right to perform actions that can be helpful in business settings. For example, hosts can share their screens to walk others through a PowerPoint. They can spotlight a given speaker to stay on everybody else’s screen in case that person is presenting a meaningful idea. The host can also mute other callers to prevent a presentation from being derailed by someone walking through the intersection of Manhattan’s busiest street and avenue. (Businesses have Unmuted Multitaskers, too.)
In social video calls, however, these functions aren’t as urgent. Instead, they allow hosts—whoever started the call—to rule a chat as they see fit. You talk and realize nobody can hear you, and soon you’re shouting and fidgeting with your headphones and considering rebooting your computer … only to discover that the host muted you. Perhaps you irritated them; perhaps they were just bored and exploiting their modest power.
Have you ever watched Around the Horn? Great! Now you’re living it! The Zoom version of Tony Reali spotlights random people, making them visibly uncomfortable as they realize everyone is cued in on them and them alone. They share their screen with the entire group and alternate between disturbing images from dark corners of the internet and embarrassing photos of what you looked like in middle school.
Why? There is no why anymore. There is no reason in the seven-person kingdom of a Zoom tyrant.
The Confused Parent
Video chats, like all technology, take a minute to set up properly. In the case of Zoom, you need to download a program and make sure your computer’s microphone and camera are activated. These adjustments could take frequent users up to 90 seconds to figure out.
However, some people never figure it out. Permanent Zoom Struggles are not exclusively a problem among The Olds, although that group is the most likely to suffer. Even when everyone on a call is a millennial, there’s usually at least one person perpetually fumbling with the format. “How can I look at the person who’s talking?” they ask while clicking frantically around their browser. “Wait—I can’t figure out how to look at everybody,” they proclaim, 45 seconds after being taught how to look at the active speaker. “Can we just all use FaceTime instead?”
Confused Parents are baffled when people update their backgrounds, perhaps even failing to understand the concept in the first place. (“Wow! What a great view off of your balcony!” they exclaim at a stock picture of the Golden Gate Bridge.) They often ask, “Can you see me?” even though they’re capable of seeing the video they’re producing on their own screen.
I should clarify that not all Confused Parents are actually parents. Some are 27, single, and living alone. The technicalities of Zoom have a strange way of aging us.
The Cross-Talk Screamer
There’s a crucial difference between hanging out with 10 of your friends in person and hanging out with 10 of your friends on a Zoom call. In person, a 10-friend hangout is comprised of a bunch of mini-conversations: Some people are sitting on one end of a table; others are waiting by the bar; others are lounging on a couch, and people mingle throughout.
On a video call, though, there are no side conversations. There are just 10 people paying attention to each other all at once. In person, if you’d like to ask one of your friends about how things are going at work, you can do so quietly without disturbing the rest of the group. On a video call, you must wait for a quiet moment in the conversation, and then everybody must hear you ask your friend about how things are going at work, and everybody must listen to the answer.
This means that large social video-call conversations are chaotic. If two people want to say something at the same time, there is no way for both to address smaller groups. Instead, they will both try to talk simultaneously, and the person who garners the attention of the group gets to speak. This person, inevitably, is the one who speaks the loudest.
One thing I have discovered about myself over the past few weeks: I am a Cross-Talk Screamer. My apologies to all of my friends whose thoughts are as important as mine, but who speak softer and often go unacknowledged.
The Background World Traveler
I spent a significant amount of time video-chatting back in 2008. My high school classmates and I were headed off to college, and our fancy new Macbooks allowed us to have video calls with each other. I don’t remember what service we used, but I remember that I was still using my AIM screen name. (I was “RDSports99,” because I liked sports and 1999 was a cool year in the future when I came up with it.) I also remember one fun feature allowed you to change your background to make it appear as if you were in a variety of locations around the world. The beach! A roller coaster! Paris!
This technology was mocked in Forgetting Sarah Marshall, when Bill Hader’s character was far too easily entertained by the ability to transport himself to outer space. The feature never worked particularly well—sometimes there was a lag, and sometimes parts of your body would disappear or blend into the background. One time a girl uploaded a screenshot to Facebook where my head was floating in the clouds. This was a big deal, as it proved on Facebook that I was video-chatting with a girl.
Over the past two weeks, I have learned that this technology has not advanced at all in 12 years—and people are still just as entertained by the concept of blurrily appearing in strange locations as Hader’s character was.
Every Zoom call I’ve been on has included at least one person endlessly cycling through random images. And honestly, I get it. It’s easier to change a background than it is to get in a joke over the chaotic cross-talk of 10-person video chats.
The Dog’s Costar
Last week, The New York Times argued that people on Zoom should hide their children and pets. Never before has the Gray Lady been so woefully out of touch. We don’t dread appearances from our friends’ and coworkers’ pets—they’re 90 percent of the reason we signed on to a video call instead of just having a conversation over the phone.
When a dog shows up on Zoom, everything else stops for one glorious moment. The person with the dog no longer needs to say or do anything, besides point the camera at the dog and shut the hell up.
The beauty of a dog on Zoom is that it has no idea it’s on Zoom, or what Zoom is, or that billions of people are sequestered in their houses due to a global pandemic. Everybody else has been changed by what’s going on in the world—even in ways we wouldn’t expect, like turning into Unmuted Multitaskers and Cross-Talk Screamers. Dogs, however, are just dogs. They’re the only ones who don’t turn into someone different on Zoom.