Not that I’m counting, but I must have spent at least 14 hours a day in front of my computer over the past few weeks. And, obviously, I’m not alone in this. The lockdowns now affecting a third of the global population have led to a spike in internet use and, for many, a very different daily life online. Microsoft’s Teams software, designed for remote collaboration, has seen a 37.5 percent uptick in use; Slack, the communication tool for workplaces, is expecting to sign three times as many new paid accounts as it does in a regular quarter; Netflix and YouTube had to lower the video quality they offer because of pressure on the network; and the most downloaded non-game app of the past few weeks has been the videoconferencing platform Zoom.
Between December 2019 and the end of March 2020, Zoom’s daily users have grown twentyfold, from 10 million to 200 million. While web developers are amazed that the platform’s infrastructure can support this exponential growth and digital privacy activists worry about its security, the stock market has seen a 143 percent increase in the company’s valuation. Other videoconferencing apps, such as Houseparty, are also seeing a boom in use, as are more traditional means of communication (phone calls are making a serious comeback), but Zoom has become emblematic of the change in our digital lives during the coronavirus crisis.
Launched in 2011, Zoom was designed for intracompany communications and, until recently, was principally used by organizations paying a fee. There is a free version, which allows meetings of up to 100 participants for a maximum of 40 minutes, but this is supplemented by a variety of paygrades for plans that enable users to go beyond that. When educational facilities began to shut as a precaution against the spreading virus, Zoom CEO Eric Yuan offered freemium accounts to schools in countries including the US, Japan and Italy so that they could host meetings without a time limit, greatly boosting the growth of the service. Surprisingly, employees and students who were directed to use Zoom by their organizations and institutions opted to stay on the platform at the end of the working or learning day. They held parties, happy hours, book clubs, performances, grandparents’ storytimes, nursery meetups and church congregations, some funerals and a few weddings.
Zoom achieved this without making the shift from work or school to socializing particularly fun, since – unlike the stickers, emoji and editing effects offered by platforms such as TikTok – Zoom has only one filter (‘touch up my appearance’) and the option to apply different backgrounds. With so few visual variations, the aesthetic experience of Zoom is universal: a grid of faces that countless internet users have compared, in memes and other jokes, to the intro screen of the classic American sitcom The Brady Bunch (1969–74), with its noughts-and-crosses-like rows of photos of the Brady family members.
Within this system of limited variation, small details of people’s daily existences can be glimpsed: interlocutors’ homes, if they haven’t opted for a virtual background, or their desktops if they are screensharing. On social media, people post screengrabs of their Zoom meetings and parties – often concealing their counterparts’ faces with emoji – even though all these images look exactly the same. Yet, Zoom is becoming a social network in itself; the tools that were designed for work – video, chat and screensharing – mean that every Zoom meeting has the potential to encapsulate most of the communication that happens on social media: image, message, and share.
Has the internet changed as a result of these shifts in use? Recently, the New York Times has taken to running stories with headlines like ‘Is the Internet Nice Now?’ (illustrated with a unicorn standing in a flowery field lit by a large, shiny wifi symbol in the sky) and ‘Has Coronavirus Made the Internet Better?’ In tech journalist Nellie Bowles’s feature ‘Coronavirus Ended the Screen-Time Debate. Screens Won’, published on 31 March, sociologist Sherry Turkle – whose 2011 book Alone Together explored how screen-mediated human communication leads to less meaningful exchanges – admits that worrying about screen time may have been a misplaced anxiety and that the current crisis has shown how the internet can be used for learning and connecting.
Yet, in this moment of unicorn-wifi-in-the-sky ‘niceness’ – when the digital realm is the only way for people to connect and entertain, to source and share information – it is crucial to retain some of the mistrust that previously guided much of the discourse around the internet. Zoom, for instance, has faced numerous concerns over its privacy policies – not only because it claimed to be end-to-end encrypted when it isn’t but also because, since the platform utilizes Facebook Developer Kits, it sends Facebook both user metadata (device type, screen size, language, time zone and network provider) as well as unique identifiers that can be used to generate targeted advertising. Further, since Zoom originated as a business tool, screensharing is turned on as a default, meaning that the administrator of a meeting can see participants’ screens, including any other programmes they may be running. Intended to ensure employees remained focussed on work meetings and not multitasking, this feature has led to users taking over social chats by sharing their own screens – often to display porn – in a prank referred to as ‘zoombombing’.
Coronavirus has not inherently changed the internet but, since all culture is now a form of digital culture, it’s more important than ever that we maintain a degree of scepticism. For years, those critically engaged with digital culture – artists, writers, curators – have spoken about the false binary in the popular imagination between our offline and online lives. Now, the digital world is so dominant over the ‘real’ world that the distinction is becoming obsolete. To those wondering whether this is the moment to start using Instagram or TikTok as the way to participate in digital culture, now that screens are uncritically ubiquitous and we are all extremely online, the answer is: it doesn’t matter. Whether on Zoom, Snapchat, Twitch, Instagram, an open-source platform or yet another company owned by Facebook, people will find ways to congregate virtually. Whatever the impact of our current digital experience on the way we work and communicate in the future, Zoom’s flat aesthetic will be forever associated with this moment. The Brady Bunch analogy is too perfect in this time of crisis: the desire for something safe and wholesome, and, perhaps ironically, something that revolves around the home.
Main image: A family in New Canaan, Connecticut, take part in shiva, the traditional Jewish time of mourning, remotely on Zoom, 11 April 2020. Courtesy: Getty Images; photograph: Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis