We had another nice Zoom gathering as our cell last week. When we began to pray, a person finally said it: “I hate Zoom!” He might have said “Zoom sucks!” or “Zoom is terrible!” I can’t remember. But I’ve heard exasperated people say those things too, lately. What do you say about Zoom, Skype, Hangouts, etc.?
You are probably saying something by this time, or just wandering away from the screen in an irritated daze. Scientists know why we are irritated and it might help if we did too. Whatever we find out, or not, we Jesus followers have the stuff to adapt and thrive, since we have plenty of life beyond the screen.
Our cell was talking about how great we thought our pastors were doing with our online meetings. But one of our members noted that even though she liked experiencing the meetings together as a family, her nine-year-old no longer wanted to be in the room when Sunday night came around. Watching the screen just reminded him of how much he wanted to be with his friends. Then my wife chimed in with how irritated our four-year-old granddaughter is by Nana on the screen. She refuses to participate in online meetings, too. The gist of what she said is, “I just want to hug you and if I can’t then I don’t want to see you.” Zoom is terrible and the children know it. So maybe we don’t need the scientists to confirm what our inner child already knows.
Zoom life has issues
In March the global downloads of the apps Zoom, Houseparty and Skype increased more than 100 percent as video conferencing and chats replaced the face-to-face encounters we all miss (see this NYTimes article). Most of us have had our faces arranged in a grid by now like the old game show “Hollywood Squares.” (And you may be the Paul Lynde or Whoopi Goldberg of the group — thanks). I know people who have attended virtual happy hours and birthday parties. Many of us have been learning in virtual classrooms and holding virtual business meetings for a long time. Now I am even doing virtual psychotherapy and your doctor is doing telemedicine.
But even the kids are reporting that something is not right – especially with Zoom. Along with security issues, psychologists, computer scientists and neuroscientists all say the distortions and delays inherent in video communication can end up making us feel isolated, anxious and disconnected (even more than we already felt). We might be better off just talking on the phone — no facial cues are better than faulty ones. The absence of visual input on the phone might even heighten our sensitivity to what’s being said. This could be why Verizon and AT&T report average daily increases of as much as 78 percent in voice-only calls since the start of the pandemic, as well as an increase in the length of these calls.
The problem is the way the video images are digitally encoded and decoded, altered and adjusted, patched and synthesized introduces blocking, freezing, blurring, jerkiness and out-of-sync audio. These disruptions, some below our conscious awareness, confound perception and scramble the subtle social cues we rely on to connect. Our brains strain to fill in the gaps and make sense of the disorder, which makes us feel vaguely disturbed, uneasy and tired without quite knowing why.
I use a computer to write, research and communicate for hours a day. I have my laptop screen open and a bigger screen attached to it. If you put me on a Zoom call I am even more distractable. It is very tempting to complete a project, fill in a chart or look up youtube videos that correlate with what is being said while people are talking. If I am on a zoom call for more than an hour, the deterioration tends to escalate. This is consistent with research on interpreters at the United Nations who report similar feelings of burnout, fogginess and alienation when translating proceedings via video feed. Studies on video psychotherapy indicate that both therapists and their clients also often feel fatigued, disaffected and uncomfortable with their process. I haven’t read all the studies, but I have listened to my comrades describe the disease. If you want to really communicate with someone in a meaningful way, video can be vexing.
Here’s the main problem
Human beings are exquisitely sensitive to one another’s facial expressions. Authentic expressions of emotion are an intricate array of minute muscle contractions, particularly around the eyes and mouth, often subconsciously perceived, and essential to our understanding of one another. But those telling twitches all but disappear on pixelated video or, worse, are frozen, smoothed over or delayed to preserve bandwidth.
All those glitches, sound problems, and background clatter mess with our perception and wreak havoc on our ability to mirror. Without realizing it, all of us engage in facial mimicry whenever we encounter another person. It’s a constant, almost synchronous, interplay. To recognize emotion, we have to actually embody it, which makes mirroring essential to empathy and connection. When we can’t do it seamlessly, as we can’t in video chat, we feel unsettled because it’s hard to read people’s reactions and, thus, predict what they will do.
“Our brains are prediction generators, and when there are delays or the facial expressions are frozen or out of sync, as happens on Zoom and Skype, we perceive it as a prediction error that needs to be fixed,” says Paula Niedenthal, a professor of psychology at the University of Wisconsin at Madison who specializes in affective response. “Whether subconscious or conscious, we’re having to do more work because aspects of our predictions are not being confirmed and that can get exhausting.”
Video chats have also been shown to inhibit trust because we can’t look one another in the eye. Depending on the camera angle, people may appear to be looking up or down or to the side. We noted this at our cell meeting the other night. It is funny to see someone point at you, even though their screen may be arranged in a different pattern than yours. Unless you know people well before they get on the screen, they may seem uninterested, shifty, haughty, servile or guilty. Zoom might, ultimately, be undercutting the trust system we use it to maintain.
The whole online thing wears out fast. We meet up with family and friends, but many of us secretly find the interactions terribly unsatisfying. Some people feel like the box that lights up around us when we speak is like an interrogation lamp switched on. The conversation can default to drivel because people don’t want to take risks in a Zoom environment. The delay in people’s feedback or the awkward cross talking make some people feel it would not be rewarding to share a good story anyway.
Will Zoom kill all the relationships it touches?
There has never been a tool that couldn’t prove dangerous. Martial arts weapons all have a history as a farm tool. I would likely hurt myself with nunchucks, so it would not be surprising if I didn’t know what to do with Zoom, as well. We will have to think about what we are doing and practice to do it well. At the same time, we’ll have to admit the limited utility of the tool and use it for what it is worth, not assume it can do everything we might need. Zoom, and things on screens in general, have such powerful machines in back of them, we often feel helpless and just go along with wherever they drive us. But we need to drive them and get somewhere with their limited utility.
As our cell considered how our church was doing during the lockdown, we had a lot of positive feelings to share. But it wasn’t long before we shared how tired of screens we have become in a few weeks time. We miss the random connections we can make in our meetings, where even a glance across the room restores connection. We were concerned about fragile and isolated people who don’t or can’t even Zoom. We’re hungry and we know they are too.
I have made several new relationships with clients in the teletherapy era. They are not so bad. Spiritual direction can also occur via Zoom. My cells have actually been deep and one of them has been dramatically easier to gather via the screen. In one meeting last week, we had a deep conversation about forgiveness. In the other, we could talk about how we deal with anger. So we can make great use of the Zoom tool, even if it is an irritating tool. In my sophomore summer during high school I got a job that mainly used a scythe to cut weeds around bomb depositories. The scythe is also an irritating tool. But it needed to be used in an environment where stray sparks might be dangerous. I like Zoom when it is the best tool I have — in the same way I can relish a peanut butter sandwich when I am starving.
Right now I am starving for our rich community life. Zoom, and other vehicles, help us sustain that life in an uncertain time. If you are walking away from the screen because you are irritated, we can all understand that. But it would be great if you could recognize your irritation for what it is and press beyond it to connect in whatever measly fashion we can. We need each other. And we need to use this time to not only sustain our community in Christ but to build the next one that can thrive in whatever mess we wake up to when the present nightmare is over.