The New Yorker:
Many months ago, when Zoom had just become a verb (I Zoom; you Zoom; we all Zoom), I learned several unflattering things about myself at once. First, I found my own face on Zoom calls riveting. Second, I missed gossip. Not malicious gossip, necessarily, just the friendly, meet-me-in-the-kitchen, eyebrows-raised-over-a-drink kind. The socialite Jordan Baker, an expert slinker in “The Great Gatsby,” put it best: “I like large parties. They’re so intimate.” At a Zoom cocktail party, there’s no kitchen, and everything said must be sanctioned by the group. (The chat function doesn’t cut it.) There are no whispered asides and no eavesdropping. You can’t slink on Zoom. You can’t sidle up to someone and say, “Bachelor”-style, “Can I steal him for a sec?” Even a large party on Zoom has no intimacy, and little to no intrigue.
Like “social distancing,” “flatten the curve,” and “covidiot,” in the past several months, “Zoom fatigue” has joined our pandemic lexicon. Jeremy Bailenson, the founding director of the Virtual Human Interaction Lab at Stanford University, was one of the first to write about it, way back in April, in a Wall Street Journal editorial titled “Why Zoom Meetings Can Exhaust Us.” California had been in lockdown for a few weeks, and he found himself on Zoom calls eight or nine hours a day. At the end of the week, he had a Zoom interview with a BBC journalist. “I’ve done interviews for the BBC for two decades, probably a couple dozen of them, and I’ve never once had anyone ask for a Skype call—we’ve always done audio only,” he told me recently. “Halfway through the interview, I said, ‘Why are we using Zoom for this?’ ”
We were speaking, at Bailenson’s request, over Zoom. He had answered my call as he often answers video calls these days: with a 3-D avatar in place of a live image of his face. Bailenson’s avatar has brown hair and wide, expressive eyes. He was wearing a dress shirt and slacks, and smiled politely at me. “I really like this for a few reasons,” Bailenson’s avatar said. “I can talk to you right now and it’s tracking my smiles, and I can look at you, and I can nod and have all my real gestures.” The avatar spread his hands wide. “But, in a moment when I just want to listen, I can go into what we like to call ‘listen mode.’ ” His avatar suddenly became even more attentive, bobbing his head and blinking sympathetically. I felt I could tell him anything. Then Bailenson switched to normal video, revealing himself in a T-shirt and shorts, reclined dramatically in his office chair. “I’m actually listening to you and paying attention,” he said, “but I’m freed from this prison of having to sit near the camera for an hour straight, hunching my back over.”
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