Maybe Zoom Parties Weren’t So Bad

New research suggests Zoom brought not just fatigue — but genuine connection

Clive Thompson

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A laptop open to a Zoom grid with 20 faces. A green mug sits next to the laptop
Photo by Chris Montgomery on Unsplash

I’m an extrovert, so when COVID hit, I lunged for any form of social connection I could get.

That meant: Zoom parties!

Back in early 2020, Zoom was blowing up. Quite literally: Its sales were up 370% in the first few months of the pandemic. (In the first month of the US’s great “go work from home, you white-collar workers” experiment, I interviewed Zoom CEO Eric Yuan — over Zoom, of course, while he sat in his car parked at the side of the road. He was cheerful but haggard; we talked about me writing a profile of him, but the next week Zoom’s server farms burst into flames — metaphorically anyway — and Yuan was too busy fixing Zoom’s security so aggro teens couldn’t zoombomb random online corporate meetings, and he had no time to meet.)

Anyway, the point is: Like many extroverts with solid wifi, I immediately set up “Zoom parties” so I could hang out with folks in cubic Brady Bunch grids. I had Zoom parties with old friends from Canada; I had Zoom drinks with my bandmates in the Delorean Sisters; while reporting a story on how white-collar corporate America went abruptly remote, I attended virtual staff hangouts of companies I reported on, where they hoisted goblets of wine and remarked on how weirdly productive they now were. Online-only work, Zooming all the time, socializing via webcam: It kind of … worked?

Until it didn’t. A few months later, all these folks —abruptly rendered Extremely Online by the pandemic — were reporting intense cases of “Zoom fatigue.” And, hey, no surprise, right? The psychic ergonomics were a mess. Doing so much Zoom socializing required you to a) stare for hours at a grid of people who b) were all staring back at you, while also beholding c) a tiny mirror of yourself on-screen.

It was like some Foucaultian panopticon where you were both the jailer and the jailed; the surveiller, and the surveilled. Zoom meetings and Zoom parties broke, like, a dozen patterns of how we’d historically interacted with folks at F2F work, and in our social lives. No wonder they caused a sort of rugburn of the human spirit.

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Clive Thompson

I write 2X a week on tech, science, culture — and how those collide. Writer at NYT mag/Wired; author, “Coders”. @clive@saturation.social clive@clivethompson.net