March 2021 marks just over a year since most of society discovered Zoom in a new context—no longer just an onomatopoeic word for traveling fast, but a video communications service that soon took over our lives. Amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, work, school, appointments, and get-togethers all went virtual, and a Zoom link became the means to connect safely with others and continue our daily schedules.
When the world went remote, the college experience transformed into “Zoom University.” Under the instruction of stay-at-home orders, college classes relocated to childhood bedrooms. Students who normally logged their steps walking across the quad from class to class now sat dormant at their desks, staring at a screen for hours on end. Students’ tiredness from physically traveling from event to event was replaced by a new detriment: “Zoom fatigue.” Days upon days of unrelenting Zoom meetings, navigating between shared screens and breakout rooms, leaves us feeling utterly exhausted. But why?
Zoom tampers with students’ on-off switch. For example, in a pre-pandemic classroom setting, all eyes would be directed toward a designated speaker and the attention would remain off the spectators. However, with Zoom’s gallery view, everyone is a subject of interest at all times. Viewing yourself during a Zoom meeting serves as a constant reminder that anyone on the call could be watching you at any second, and you are compelled to rewire your switch to remain on. It is like “you’re watching the television and the television is watching you” (BBC). Not only is it difficult for us to be in this communal spotlight for so many hours of the day, but also we simply are not used to staring at ourselves so much. In the real world, there are no mirrors at every corner for us to stop and scrutinize ourselves, yet Zoom gifts us with this unwanted possibility. Staring at a gallery view screen—our peer’s real-world yearbook snapshots come to life—also demands multitasking that our brain is not used to. Subconsciously, we are forced to decode everything happening on the screen at once, until our attention is divided into fractions so small that our brains feel like they are on hamster wheels.
Communication difficulties over Zoom also compound upon our fatigue. Trapped inside the little boxes that Zoom assigns to us, non-verbal communication feels like a battlefield. Sending and receiving signals is no longer a natural process, and we are forced to overly-emote just to get our point across. Any silence in this communication process can be interpreted as more than just a natural pause in a conversation, but instead a possible technical difficulty that needs to be rectified immediately before you miss any information.
Even the concept of Zoom is draining. Every single click of “join meeting” reminds us of the in-person connection we have lost. Zoom will forever feel like an obligation, even if used for entertainment purposes. It is virtually impossible to decouple this video conferencing from the utter disappointment one feels from lacking a shared physical space with others. Gianpiero Petriglieri, an associate professor of organizational behavior at INSEAD, expresses our reaction to online communication perfectly: “It doesn’t matter whether [we] are introverts or extroverts. We are experiencing the same disruption of the familiar context during the pandemic” (BBC).
Zooming for over a year has taken a toll on all of us, especially students, as we continue to learn socially and physically distanced behind a screen. I am not sure there will ever be a day when Zoom’s blue logo does not live on our devices, but with hope in the vaccine distribution, there may be a day when it no longer controls our lives or fatigues our minds.