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Scatology and salvation: Why Zoom is so damn tiring

What is making everyone so exhausted at the end of a day of video teleconferences? The answers are both complex and simple

New York University associate professor Carol Dysinger conducts her weekly class for graduate filmmaking students via Zoom at her Brooklyn apartment on April 9, 2020.
New York University associate professor Carol Dysinger conducts her weekly class for graduate filmmaking students via Zoom at her Brooklyn apartment on April 9, 2020. (Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images file photo)

Poop. And Jesus. OK, it’s a cheap trick, I acknowledge, to start a column with such unequivocal words. But as you’ll see, they have to do with Zoom (or any of the other web-based teleconferencing apps), which we are all beholden to in this moment of pandemic. Or at least those of us working from home with decent computers and internet connections.

Those two vivid words, potentially offensive if misused, were actually the successive screen names adopted by a second-grader my wife and I know who learned quickly in his online elementary school classes, once coronavirus hit, that he could change such names on Zoom with a keystroke or two.

So, after being suitably admonished by his teacher for using poop as his new screen name during a class — the teacher barely suppressed a laugh — the second-grader complied by switching his username to, well, Jesus. Fellow students chuckled, again; the teacher did not.

More admonishment ensued.

But really, can you blame the kid? He was throwing a little humor bomb into his otherwise passive, rooted-to-a-chair, staring-at-a-screen educational life.

The little guy was bored, and tired of being on video, all day, all the time.

He is not alone. In the past couple of months, stories have been rampant across media outlets about “Zoom fatigue” as an army of sociologists, psychologists and media specialists opine on what is making everyone so tired at the end of a day of video teleconferences.

The answers are both complex and simple.

One is the anchored nature of sitting, or even standing, facing the computer screen for 45 minutes, an hour, 90 minutes on end. You can’t move around during an online videoconference like you can with a phone conversation, when you can cook dinner and water or weed the yard while chatting.

Another problem, researchers say, is that it is tempting during a lull in a video meeting to go “tab surfing” and do other online tasks and listen with one ear to the meeting. That really means you’re not giving your full attention to the meeting and you’re multitasking, which some people do well and others don’t. Multitasking is fatiguing and can only be done for so long.

Moreover, as it turns out, we are actually working harder during a video meeting because, unlike in a meeting room, we’re not automatically absorbing in our peripheral vision the physical cues of an entire room full of fidgeting, moving, animated human bodies — people leaning forward, clearing throats, making humorous asides and guffaws that all indicate we’re participating as a coherent group.

We strain when we have to stare at a little thumbnail photo in the gallery view on Zoom, and even when we use presenter mode, on most computers that image of the main speaker is way smaller than a real human being. It’s a strain to focus on that little image and to keep focused. And it’s just as hard for the speaker to “carry the room” because of the lack of physicality.

In a physically present meeting, people actually can get excited and nearly speak at once, in agreement or dissent, or with perfect sequential rapid-fire discussion. But in a video meeting, it’s all linear, one person after the other in a slow dirge of declarative sentences and sequential bullet points. Yawn.

Finally, researchers say that people also don’t like seeing the mirror image of themselves on the computer screen. You see your own flaws and can’t get them out of your head, whether it’s a two-day growth of beard or a maddening hair out of place or a coffee stain you missed on your shirt.

And that’s the rub. We live in a visual age, and Zoom and its cohorts are visual media. We have been in this age of images ever since people started capturing pictures with still cameras in the 19th century and Mr. Edison invented movies. But the thing about photography and motion pictures is that good visuals — they are a show after all — take unbelievable amounts of time and skill.

Making a good photograph is a complex and practiced calculation of light, composition, depth of field, focus and then a big dollop of imagination and artistry. For movies, it is that times 100. Actors, costumes, sets, lighting, dialogue, music, sound recording, makeup, animation, editing and a cornucopia of other skill sets go into making a movie. It takes years to make a good movie, and you can screw it up along the way in oh-so-many ways.

But because of technology and these amazing internet-born tools of video teleconferencing and streaming, we jump into a video meeting, a visual experience, with relatively little preparation or forethought.

And then we wonder why it comes out boring, trying and fatiguing.

It’s because we’re kind of just winging it. Zoom is just live TV, done badly, without real actors.

The best video, film and visual experiences, whether Star Wars or Shakespeare, are stage-managed, planned, plotted, story-boarded, written, honed, rewritten, rehearsed. The artifice is the thing, but great artifice takes time.

Creativity takes time and patience. But try it anyway. Throw something against the wall during your next Zoom conference and see if it sticks. It can be a bit excretory, even, but it just might be your meeting’s savior.

Think poop. And Jesus.

Patrick B. Pexton is CQ Roll Call’s technology editor.

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