At the beginning of this stretch of self-isolation, I craved the sight of my loved ones’ faces. Seeing them on my laptop screen and hearing about their lives would briefly drive out the loneliness and disorientation of my newly apartment-bound life, lending my day a pretense of normalcy that would last for hours after our calls. But over the nearly two months that I’ve been replacing cocktail parties and dinners out with Zoom chats, I’ve noticed a change. Specifically: Zoom hangouts drive me nuts.
I’ve tried to parse what makes Zoom so exhausting for me. I feel like an emotionally bereft alien struggling to comprehend the mysteries of human connection. What makes a meatspace gathering a life-affirming source of intimacy, and a digital one a simulacrum? Hugging my friends is nice, but really, seeing and hearing them—and having them see and hear me—is what I like best about our time together. If I can do that just fine on my computer, why doesn’t it feel the same?
My internal alien has identified the lack of normal eye contact as one central pitfall of the video-chat experience. Talk to someone over FaceTime or Zoom, and they’ll never quite meet your eyes. They’ll spend the call looking at their screen, a few inches below or to the side of their camera, giving you the perpetual feeling of trying to get the attention of someone who’s ever so slightly preoccupied. Once, on a Skype call many years ago, a friend looked directly into her camera to say something heartfelt to me with the approximation of true eye contact. The effect was jarring: I didn’t fully realize that we hadn’t been making eye contact until she was suddenly staring straight into my soul from inside my screen. She was gazing at her computer’s eye, not mine, and could actually see less of my face than when she was looking at her screen, yet I felt strangely, uncomfortably exposed. When I recently tried it on a video call with my niece and nephew in an attempt to make them laugh, it gave me the unsettling impression of carrying on a conversation with HAL 9000, who’d been watching me watch the kids throughout our call. (FaceTime, perhaps even more eerily, has a new feature that attempts “eye contact correction” to make it appear you’re looking directly at each other, even when you’re not.)
Even if you don’t think you miss locking eyes with your loved ones or colleagues, your brain might. Eye contact plays a documented role in successful human communication. One 2017 study from the University of Cambridge found that when infants and adults locked eyes, their brain waves were better able to “synchronize”; a 2019 study from the National Institute for Physiological Sciences in Japan suggests that eye contact primes the brain for empathy. We’re also accustomed to picking up on messages our interlocutors send with their bodies, which give us clues about their comfort level, the direction and intensity of their focus, and whether they’re preparing to speak. “A typical video call impairs these ingrained abilities, and requires sustained and intense attention to words instead,” Julia Sklar wrote in a National Geographic piece about “Zoom fatigue.” Whether a viewer’s screen displays several participants in a conference call or just one, according to Sklar, “the brain becomes overwhelmed by unfamiliar excess stimuli while being hyper-focused on searching for non-verbal cues that it can’t find.”
This gets at another reason for video chat fatigue, the opposite of the eye contact problem: You have to look at each other’s faces the entire time! There are rarely natural breaks in conversation on Zoom, as there might be during a typical group dinner or coffee date, and it’s much harder to have a comfortable silence (or manage an uncomfortable one) when all parties are staring at one another nonstop. There’s no peeking out a window, no studying a menu, no people-watching, no helping out in the kitchen or asking about a host’s record collection. There’s only talking, and in a video chat with more than two participants, striking a normal conversational rhythm is nearly impossible. Add in differing internet lag times and the inability to hear multiple people speaking at once, and every group discussion becomes group “monologuing,” as Ashley Fetters termed it in the Atlantic. The patron saint of lively repartee rolls over in her grave with every “Wait, what was that?,” “Sorry, you go ahead,” and “Hang on, you just froze.”
Then there’s the part where I have to look at myself. In real life, entire minutes can pass by without my thinking about the angle of my chin, the texture of my skin, or the shadows under my eyes. It’s much harder to feel fully immersed in the company of family or friends when my attention is split between the content of a conversation and a moving image of my own face. Each glance to check whether I’m properly framed in the video feed takes me out of the exchange, redirecting some of my scattered focus back toward myself and inhibiting the ego suppression that marks moments of true intimacy.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m not opposed to being looked at. In fact, since the start of the COVID-19 lockdown, I’ve developed a new appreciation for the now-lost joys of seeing and being seen in person. Occasionally, before a Zoom call, I’ll put on a glitzy dress and mascara to mimic the anticipatory buzz of getting ready for a night out. But video chatting offers the worst of both worlds when it comes to this peacocking: I don’t get a break from looking at myself when I enter a room with friends, and they can’t fully appreciate my eyeliner. I’m more conscious—and, sometimes, critical—of my own appearance, and none of us can see one another’s shoes.
In other words, on a video call, there’s too much information about the self, and not enough about the others. Fully aware of my every fleeting facial expression thanks to my front-facing camera, I find myself overemoting to make sure my reactions come through when those little verbal assents and acknowledgments that keep conversations flowing get lost. Social instincts that usually require little conscious effort are now taking up space in my brain, draining the energy I used to devote to the substance of a conversation.
If all this sounds like I’m expecting far too much of an already futuristic and undoubtedly valuable technology, that’s because I am. Video chatting used to be an upgrade on the alternative: Why would I email my friends who live in Bangkok when I could see their smiles, their new apartment, and their newborn? To be able to converse face to face from opposite sides of the planet, with crisp video quality and only a minimal time lag, seemed like a miraculous gift of the tech age. But these days, when video chatting has to stand in for a whole social life’s worth of in-person contact, it feels like a massive downgrade. Every Zoom call brings a painful reminder of what quarantined life is missing. There’s no cruising at the virtual sex party, no quiet side conversations at the virtual group dinner. The virtual disco is a depressing grid of homebound people staring at their screens from behind their coffee tables, watching themselves dance for other people who might not even be looking at them. At the virtual birthday party, it’s impossible to sing to the honoree in unison. When I hit the “leave meeting” button, I’m back where I started: lonely and alone, missing my friends, facing down the device I associate with all my most stressful work hours and consumption of bad news.
Sometime during my third week of lockdown, I realized I was starting to get comfortable with my new normal. My wife and I had found a more sustainable working-from-home rhythm, I no longer felt deflated when I’d remember I had no weekend plans, and I enjoyed the extra time to cook and read. As I read about restaurants and theaters struggling to stay afloat while shut down, I began to worry that even when public spaces could safely reopen, people would’ve gotten so accustomed to spending their free time at home and socializing from afar that they’d fail to return to those local gathering places. I kept thinking about something my remote-working Slate colleague and former Dismemberment Plan frontman Travis Morrison said at the beginning of our work-from-home spell, about spending too much time in front of a screen: The computer, he said, “can start to seem like the thing that the world is in.”
For many of us, the world inside a computer will prove an inadequate scratcher of our most basic human itches. Now that I’m surpassing two months of social isolation, I no longer fear for the future of IRL gatherings. For one thing, my comfort in quarantine ebbs and flows. (One day, I’m happy to eat a nice lunch at home rather than an overpriced salad at my desk; the next, I’m crawling out of my skin, craving a messy night out.) More important, this quarantine has given 21st century humanity its first glimpse at what it might feel like to confine even more of our lives to the world behind the screen—and it’s a deeply unsatisfying view. Video chatting is exhausting. Livestreamed events are a snooze. Turns out virtual life is a sorry substitute for a real one. Maybe that’s a good thing.
For more on the impact of the coronavirus, listen to What Next: TBD.