Zooms’ true colours

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Zoom, the program that did what Skype couldn’t manage Iyus Sugiharto via Unsplash

From video calls to chatting with friends, Zoom has seen it all (and then some)

In about a month, it will be two years since students at the University of Regina started getting emails about the pandemic, the need to practice social distancing, and the temporary move to online delivery and working/attending classes from home. Since then, we have tried a gradual return to a normal way of life, while being set back by new developments in the pandemic. We still hope that there is an end in sight soon, but there is no denying that it has been a weird two years, in every sense of the word. Hopefully, we have learned some important lessons that will stay with us even when all of this is behind us. While I doubt anything can make up for the stress and isolation we have gone through, the optimist in me hopes that there can be some silver lining – maybe just the realization of how much we took for granted about our daily lives up to March, 2019.

One big part of our online lives during the last two years has been video conferencing solutions. While somehow Zoom seems to have become the most successful, to the extent that many of us now use Zoom as a verb for making a video call the same way we use Google as a verb for searching something, there are also rival softwares like Google Meet, Microsoft Teams, and for that matter the hastily launched Rooms feature on Facebook Messenger. At least one peer of mine back home lamented how he is in four classes, and each is using a different app for video meetings!

In the first few weeks of this pandemic Zoom was also being used for more than just online classes and work meetings. Looking back, I feel a little self-conscious in admitting that some friends and I used it for virtual hangouts for a few weekends, gaming together or just chatting for a couple of hours over tea or coffee. As the lockdown persisted though, we stopped that soon enough. Most of us were getting enough screen time through work and school, and while seeing friends was nice, additional screen time was not.

Personally, I have found Zoom to be a mixed bag. I cannot appreciate enough how easy it has made my life in terms of scheduling. In addition to being a full-time student and a part-time writer, I volunteer in several school and community organizations. In the pre-pandemic life, this often meant having to schedule multiple meetings, not all of them necessarily on campus, and worry about commuting and coordinating everything. Now, I happily schedule a Zoom meeting, knowing I can do my own work up to the last minute before meeting time.

It probably makes sense, then, that we have collectively found it easy to overdo this aspect of it. Just yesterday, I had five Zoom meetings. By the end of the day I was done with computers, meetings, and sitting at a desk. Yet I am back at it today, with two Zoom meetings scheduled. However, the worst aspect of the Zoom experience for me has been the casualness with which we have abused this convenience.

In my work as a teaching assistant, I had encountered one student who repeatedly asked for Zoom meetings to discuss homework problems. Of course, helping these students is part of my job. Nevertheless, I feel justified in my concerns when said student explained to me that no, they simply could not articulate their question in an email for me to respond to in an asynchronous manner and yes, a Zoom meeting was non-negotiable. On the two occasions I relented and scheduled a meeting with them, each lasted five minutes and involved asking one question. I only remember one of the questions: “What is the maximum possible value of n?” I invite the readers to decide if this could indeed have been asked over email, sparing me from having to set aside my thesis work and schedule a video call.

Then there are the amusing Zoom blunders that are now the topic of dozens of memes. I maintain that the most used phrase in the last couple of years is “You are muted!” said each time with a little more exasperation. Worse though, is when you should have been muted but weren’t, and now the work meeting you are in is featuring your pets, child, or some mix of the two as background music. My favorite along those lines, however, must be the time I was joining a prayer service, and one member of the congregation kept getting unmuted. The icing on the cake was how each time it happened, their dog began barking in what I am willing to bet was perfect tune with the songs in the service!

Unless the meeting involves a very small group or I am the one speaking, I also like to keep my video off. A related recurring nightmare always involves a series of hopefully unlikely events, like my camera suddenly coming on, and my clothes somehow disappearing at that same instant. I am relieved to report that this has not happened so far, and the most embarrassing video incident that I have had to endure are the times when my facial expressions betrayed my inner thoughts about an idea someone suggested.

I wanted to write mostly about the blunders we made in our many video meetings since 2020 but putting my thoughts on paper has made me think. Many of these incidents, I feel, portray the privileges some of us have. How many of us live in a house with personal space away from pets, kids, and other family members? How many of us already had the hardware and sufficient internet access to facilitate a complete move to our work and school lives online? Among those who did not already have the infrastructure, how many had enough savings to be able to invest in setting one up? How many were comfortable enough with technology to use it so often?

I know that having each of these things does not make me a terrible person, but I think we need to acknowledge how much privilege we have only now becoming visible in the event of a crisis or a pandemic. Maybe that can be one of the lessons we take from the past two years, and learn to be more mindful of.

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