Unmute: Scattered Thoughts on Zoom Fatigue
Long Hauling (9/9)

Unmute: Scattered Thoughts on Zoom Fatigue

Our definitions of “Zoom fatigue” are as varied as our symptoms—from anxiety to loathing to fits of laughter and primal screams. Neta Alexander offers differing perspectives on this new fatigue that has forced its way into our lexicon.

On some days, I can feel the fatigue creeping in as soon as I open my eyes.

Like other phrases from the pandemic lexicon that infiltrated our language—flatten the curve, shelter in place, social distance, lockdown—I don’t remember the first time I encountered the term “Zoom fatigue.” Alarming headlines identified it as a side effect of videoconferencing, only to quickly reassure readers that it is a temporary, individual problem that can be easily mitigated by “changing your remote work setting, taking a ten-minute break, or avoiding multitasking.” None of these listicles acknowledged the uncanniness of trying to focus on a conversation while the other person—your boss, colleague, friend, therapist, or potential employer—holds both a mirror and a camera within three feet of your face.

But what do I mean by “Zoom fatigue”?

A black rectangle with the name "Neta Alexander" in white, and an "unmute" button in the top right corner.

I mean that I’m tired of pretending that things are normal when nothing is. I’m tired of interacting, teaching, listening, caring, celebrating, playing, and grieving from my office chair. I’m tired of rearranging the mise-en-scene to include less sun, more books. I’m tired of rewiring my brain to ignore subconscious desynchronization between audio and video input. I am tired of being entirely dependent on tech companies whose values I do not share. I’m tired of pretending that touch is not a necessity and a lifeboat, an epistemology and a pedagogy. I’m tired of not being able to see my family back home for over two years. Being a cancer survivor and a cardiac patient who has always been on the wrong side of medical statistics, I’m tired of being told that “classroom transmission is very unlikely.” I have Zoom fatigue, compassion fatigue, cognitive fatigue, variant fatigue, and just plain old fatigue. I’m too tired to raise my voice.

What does my childhood friend mean by “Zoom fatigue”?

She means that I disappeared from her life and that it’s incredibly painful. That she’s tired of how talking is our only shared activity. That she misses going to the movies, to the beach, to parties, going on an adventure, taking the day off, knowing when an encounter will begin but not when it will end. That she remembers my voice, but not how I smell, how I move through space, how I visibly shake when I’m braindead and cannot stop laughing. That what she needs from me is a hug, not a puppy emoji.

What do my students mean by “Zoom fatigue”?

A videoconferencing screen with icons at the bottom, a "stressed" emoji in the centre, and a red "end" button in the top right corner.

They mean that they miss the world they assumed would never go away. They mean that they hate looking at themselves for hours on end. They mean that they have become nostalgic for establishing shots instead of medium close-ups. They mean that sitting together with masks is less horrifying than never meeting their professors and classmates IRL. They mean that things must return to normal, even if this virus is never going away.  

What do university administrators mean by “Zoom fatigue”?

They mean that those required to teach in person need to forget Zoom as if it were an embarrassing transitional object. This beloved blanky should never be mentioned again, or else our institutions will go the way of the dinosaurs. Zoom, the very same deus ex machina that saved higher education last year, is now only to be used in a state of emergency. Returning to the classroom has been touted by many American universities as the only way to move forward, and accommodations are hardly, if ever, granted. In most residential colleges, teaching, office hours, faculty meetings, and cultural events are all taking place in person. Our students, faculty are told, are exhausted, and their Zoom fatigue is to be avoided at any cost.

What do UX/UI designers mean by “Zoom fatigue”?

They mean that this is a bug, not a feature. That the Zoomtopia can now offer us “immersive scenes” and “animated meeting reactions.” As Zoom announced at a 2020 conference, “We’re livening up meeting reactions with animation and sound to help students, teachers, and staff engage in fun ways.” They mean their design decision to make the default setting “show self-view” rather than “hide self-view” did not exacerbate self-hate, anxiety, and depression among my students. They mean that technology can and should solve any problem. That it is, and will always be, fun.

Promotional graphic for the "Zoomtopia" virtual experience.

What does my immunocompromised friend mean by “Zoom fatigue”?

He seldom mentions it. For him, Zoom opens up a world that has been otherwise shut down. It allows him to keep his job, to see his mother, to attend a funeral, to present at a conference. It is the best of all possible worlds. Zoom: a lifeline for the long haulers, the bedridden, the socially anxious.

Of course, for others the emotional distance between Zoom fatigue and rage is growing shorter—a premise that is loudly explored in Marilene Oliver’s “Whoever Screams the Loudest,” a five-minute video artwork shot on Google Hangout and uploaded to Vimeo in January 2021. The goal, as Oliver explains in a short description, is “to scream the loudest in order to try and steal the Google Hangout ‘spotlight’.” The result is a depressing, relatable, amusing, and mostly unwatchable manifesto against the videoconferencing technologies that have come to shape our pandemic lives. The video, much like the pandemic, is an endurance test. The four family-members-turned-coworkers forsake the social norms of online communication for a desperate cry for attention. They practice self-harm; as the contest progresses, they become visibly exhausted while gasping for air. The work ends with a sound of coughing. Everybody lost.

Oliver drew inspiration from “medieval religious rituals of crying and screaming to be heard (and thus saved) by God,” as well as from Edvard Munch’s The Scream and Ulay and Marina Abramović’s 1978 performance AAA-AAA. Yet, there is something disturbingly timely about her work. How many times did you want to scream at your screen since the first COVID lockdown? How many screams did you alchemically transform into a polite nod, a comment in the chat, a wry smile, a “clapping” or “thumbs up” emoji?

Such are the abrupt transitions between fatigue and rage that have become a central stressor of this ongoing pandemic. As we continue in the long haul, our cameras-turn-mirrors both sustain and distort our idea of friendship, care, and intimacy. Entering its third year, with millions of lives lost around the world, the pandemic can no longer be seen as a temporary, intense sprint; It is a marathon that we’re running. No wonder we need to catch our breath.

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