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.