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Grids Are Not Neutral: A Year on Zoom

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My first COVID-induced work-from-home Zoom meeting was on March 16, 2020. My university job had used Zoom before then, but in those cases, it was a group gathered in one room with a single person appearing on the screen from a remote location. March 16 was the first time I used Zoom in which all participants were remote and thus it marked my first experience within the grid of equally sized rectangular videos.

Such meetings were beginning to play out across sectors in America where we tend to spend our days: places of study, worship, and work. With the architecture of schools, churches, and offices stripped away, I felt a sense of hope in the democratization of the grid. In its novelty, the Brady Bunch was an oft-repeated reference, and in that implied familial context there was some equivalent to the format of a roundtable talk. With faces pointed squarely at cameras, I no longer felt the inhibitions of a cavernous auditorium or a wood-paneled board room, but rather saw myself on equal footing with my superiors. I peeked into the homes of vice presidents and adjunct professors alike—some eating meals in tight kitchens, some sitting on leather couches in front of fireplaces and exposed brick, others touting their own “credibility bookshelves: the background that makes you look like you know what you’re talking about,” as Amanda Hess wrote for the New York Times.

As the effects of COVID-19 put the inequities of our country front and center, so Zoom exposed the privileges of having access to a computer and high-speed internet. Privilege over the past year has included not only the ability to stay at home, but also to have access to your own quiet space in that home. In the Zoomiverse, our surroundings identify us in new ways. Standardized virtual backgrounds—of the Northern Lights, the Golden Gate Bridge, or gently rolling ocean waves—evolved into curated virtual background collections on Good Housekeeping or Unsplash or even your school’s website. You can virtually situate yourself in a Japanese-style dining room, in a park with sunlight streaming through the trees, amidst the columns of the Sagrada Familia, or in front of the Taj Mahal, all while remaining in bed or at your kitchen table.

In the scramble to transition to the initial lockdowns across the country, we stumbled through establishing social norms in this new shared space. We adopted Zoomiforms: professional-enough shirts and pants with elastic waistbands. We suffered through awkward silences and connection hiccups and speakers forgetting to unmute themselves. We started giving thumbs-ups to visually indicate “yes” and we formed the habit of raising our digital hands and remaining muted unless called upon. Zoom bombing was a thankfully brief phenomenon before the company increased security measures and required passwords and waiting rooms and other verifications. Zoom added recording disclaimers as well, so that now when a meeting is being recorded, participants must either consent or leave, drawing attention to the fact that there are people behind these platforms making decisions about the ways in which it functions. We go to lectures and community meetings on Zoom; we celebrate birthdays and graduations and holidays and weddings. I have met new people over Zoom who still have no idea how tall I am.

The more a particular technology is integrated into one’s everyday life, the more subtle its oddities become and, consequently, so do the effects of a seemingly neutral platform on one’s behavior. Art often gives a chance to take a step back from the world and see something with fresh eyes and so, on a recent Friday night almost a year after my first gridded Zoom call, I attended Zeven Event Zcores for Zoom by Lee Walton, part of ‘sindikit’s Friday night performance series. The event was advertised as being best viewed on a laptop, and shortly after joining, attendees were informed that the performance was participatory and asked to turn on their cameras. This simple request, while taking away some agency—or rather requiring some level of consent—lent the event a feeling of both intimacy and exposure.

 

Zcore #6: Participants were first asked “What’s something you’ve had a hand in?” and then to rename themselves as the answer to that question, and finally, to adjust the camera to view only their hands.

Walton’s performance was about using Zoom in ways that it wasn’t built to be used, a result of accidental experiences the artist had while engaging with the platform in everyday life. Walton issued participants a series of instructions (or “zcore”) that played with the mechanics of the platform itself. In one zcore, I watched as participants mysteriously disappeared from the call until I was left alone with the artist and the host, finally being sent into a breakout room by myself and shortly after being reunited with everyone in the main Zoom room. 

In another, participants were instructed to change their profile names to their telephone numbers, mute themselves, and then call each other and talk. I felt an initial hesitation in broadcasting my phone number to a room of strangers but I complied, and when my telephone rang, the screen filled with silent videos of people talking on their phones. The quality of a stranger’s voice in my ear felt so intimate compared to the voices that had been coming through my laptop speakers. No matter the instructions, the conversation naturally turned to small talk—what had brought us to the performance, how we knew the artist or the hosts.

Walton’s performance also played with group dynamics. We were presented with a yes/no poll without an accompanying question and were asked to “agree upon maybe” in less than a minute. The first time around, without speaking or signaling to each other, we got close: 54 percent yes, 46 percent no. Once we started talking and giving thumbs up or thumbs down to indicate our responses, the results only got more lopsided. 

In the final zcore, we were asked to pin the video of a person adjacent to ourselves and then sit completely still, mimicking the actions of the person we had pinned as closely as possible. The person I had pinned seemed as if they were trying not to smile. A corner of their mouth or an eyebrow raised here and there; eventually, they puffed out their cheeks and rocked back and forth, hardly noticeable at first, and then very noticeably. From the row of videos at the top of my screen, everyone else I could see was also rocking back and forth, a visual indication that we were somehow all connected to each other, like the way a wave moves through a crowd around a stadium.

 

Zcore #7: Participants were asked to unmute themselves, hold their breath for as long as they could and to turn their cameras off when they needed to breathe.

Attending Zeven Event Zcores for Zoom crystalized the amount of watching—rather than participating—that I typically do on Zoom, and yet I still experience Zoom fatigue on a weekly basis. We give ourselves to the screen, but the screens don’t give anything back to us. Glitches and delays make it hard to not only read the room, but to pick up on any of the energy that usually flows among a group of people. This reality makes it all the more worthwhile to get together with a group of strangers and play within the confines of a platform like Zoom. Over the past year, there have been so few opportunities to interact with anyone, let alone with strangers, and my social skills need the practice.

In March 2020, I likened our new COVID reality to traveling to a new country—the way you’re not quite sure how to behave in public space, unclear about the customs. At this point, we have established some new social customs, such as social distancing and wearing a mask, and while some of those new norms are essential for public health and the safety of ourselves and our communities, others deserve questioning, like recent manifestations of virtual activism or where we do the majority of our online shopping. Even as the world begins to open up again, certain parts of our COVID existence are sure to remain, whether it’s the option to work from home, or celebrating important events with friends and family from afar. I suspect we may always engage through screens to some extent, and now is the time to recognize our new norms and ask ourselves if we’re ok with them. Hierarchies still emerge, and we must be thoughtful about how we engage with and through these platforms. Even a grid is not neutral.   

 

*****

On Friday, March 26, at 7 p.m., ‘sindikit hosts “Art is a way of survivel.” A bootleg slideshow from Canal Street Research Association. More info about the performance here.

 

Header image: Zcore #8: Participants were asked to unmute with their cameras on and leave their devices for three minutes in order to give them some privacy with the other devices.

 

Photos courtesy of ‘sindikit

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