The virality of video calls
How apps like Zoom, Teams, Skype, Meets have become post-pandemic symbols in our lives
Deepika Sahu, an India-based journalist, has always had a comfortable relationship with technology, fascinated as she was by the endless possibilities it offered. However, early this year, her perception changed when she experienced a defining ‘tech’ moment: a Zoom memorial meeting for a friend who passed away during the devastating second wave that hit India. “In normal times, I would have gone to his home, and grieved with his wife and kids. But here I was, sharing my beautiful memories with others over a video call. It was an intense and grim reminder of the extraordinary times we live in. I have attended three online memorials since then and each one was painful, not just for the loss but also for my inability to grieve and be present the way I would have wanted to,” says Deepika.
If virtual condolence meets made Deepika think about altered existential realities of the last year and a half, the same technology made Jan Sanchez, a Dubai-based graphic designer, come closer to his extended family. Jan, like many millennials, had to familiarise his family and relatives in the Philippines and the US with the magic of video calling apps. But once his family mastered the craft of sending and receiving online invites, life hasn’t been the same. “My folks are hooked to it. My mother is on call with her family back home even during meals!” he laughs. “Despite the travel restrictions, we haven’t really missed each other’s presence because of the ease with which it is now possible to connect.”
THE VIDEO CALLING BOOM
In the 18 months since the pandemic struck, a lot has changed for us personally and professionally. However, among the many disruptions that Covid-19 caused, a complicated relationship with technology, particularly video calling, has to be the most significant. Remember the bewildering initial days of the lockdown when the need to stay online and download apps to accomplish even the most basic tasks made one crave the comfort of simpler times? Be it out of choice or compulsion, that disruption has now become a new reality and comfort zone for many. Clare Geeves, a communications manager and former Dubai resident, found her life take a 360-degree turn during the pandemic when she moved from hot Dubai to cold Tasmania where she has to work Gulf hours. “My day starts at 2 pm and doesn’t end until 2am but I actually like this as I have taken up studying, walking and making sure I have time to myself in the morning,” says Clare.
Not surprisingly, she credits an overuse of technology for being an enabler of her changed lifestyle. “While technology has played the biggest part of being able to work remotely, it’s a double-edged sword. I have to be available constantly 24/7,” she shrugs.
Never mind the technical glitches and pixelated faces of friends and colleagues in panels, apps like Zoom, Facetime, Houseparty, Teams and Meets — the tools and tackles that were introduced essentially to help us cope with the shock of isolation — have become embedded into our birthdays, dates, family celebrations, marriages, condolence meets and office discussions, changing the dynamics of relationships forever. Despite the initial reluctance to accept them, you get a feeling that they are now enduring symbols of our post-Covid world, much like facemasks, wipes and sanitisers.
Of course, the exponential rise in the use of technology in every sector is hardly news but, not too long ago, there was a pretty decent demarcation between the online and offline life. What the pandemic has done is to blur all these boundaries. And interestingly, even as the virus makes a slow retreat (at least in some parts of the world), a lot of us prefer that the boundaries remain blurred and the interactions virtual.
“Honestly, I quite like the Zoom life now,” says Vienna-based research scholar Sigma Samhita. “As a PhD student, time management is of essence to me and the shift to online education has been immensely helpful. For example, I do not need to waste an hour or more travelling to and from my university for a 75-minute seminar. If I do not find a seminar topic even remotely relevant, I can do my work on the side!”
Incidentally, most people I interviewed had a similar response when it came to work. A few weeks ago, offices and schools in the UAE and several other countries opened up, and the clogged streets and rushed office-goers (albeit with masks on), symbolised the near-return of pre-Covid normalcy. With friends putting up grinning ‘return to office’ pictures on social media, I assumed they were itching to get back to their earlier routines. After all, who wouldn’t have missed coffee-room conversations with colleagues and face-to-face arguments after nearly two years of presentations over video calls and endless rants in front of laptop screens?
I was wrong. The enthusiasm of driving to office again appeared indirectly proportionate to the excitement displayed on their Instagram profiles. While most were relieved to get the freedom to move out and about again (mainly partying and holidaying!), the outdoors didn’t appear to hold such a big appeal when it came to workplaces. As Jan says, “Yes, it’s good to get back to office but I find WFH more convenient and a better option. You can actually relax after work as you don’t have to spend hours standing in the metro or on the road. The only good thing about WFO is that you can leave your work behind and switch off, at least physically.”
Sigma concurs. “I am still working from home, and I really enjoy it. I lived in Vienna alone before the pandemic (and before I got married), which meant cooking, cleaning and doing all other household chores along while working on my research. Work from home has made my days flexible, and I can easily work for some hours, take a break and cook some food, then return to my research.”
The comfort of working in your pajamas aside, some other habits garnered through the lockdown period have become an integral part of everyday life which the post-pandemic generation seem to be in no hurry to chuck. Be it attending online Mass sessions of the Church or buying groceries, Jan says, he has gotten so used to the convenience of apps that it has become near-impossible for him to return to the earlier way of life. He notes with amusement how his once tech-unsavvy mother goes online to Amazon to shop for water. “Even small supermarkets created WhatsApp groups to enable us to order essentials during lockdown and they continue to offer these services over apps even now. My own online shopping, be it for clothes or gadgets, has increased tremendously over the last several months,” he says.
For digital marketing specialist Jeriline Ciprez, the post-pandemic life is all about being careful in public places and using technology to the max. Much of her current personal life routines are what she picked up during the lockdown phase. “I still try and avoid going to public places, still wash hands often and order food and shop online as much as possible. Thankfully, these apps have made life much easier, they are really not as bad as they were made out to be. Technology is constantly evolving so you have to adapt to it,” she advises.
WHAT ABOUT THE ZOOM FATIGUE?
So, what happened to the much-talked about phenomenon of ‘Zoom fatigue’ — the flipside of video calling and the perils of increased screen time on your brain and eyes? Studies by researchers from Stanford and other organisations have noted how the constant engagement with technology causes emotional and physical exhaustion. Didn’t we all assume that the moment the restrictions would be lifted, people would hurry to leave behind their digital lives and embrace real connections?
Not really, for technology has provided a choice of how to conduct and mould your relationships to your convenience (think about it: you can always skip a boring party or event by joining it online and keeping the video on while you follow something else!). Thus, while the burnout caused by unending video calls and the subsequent anxiety, depression, stress and anger are very real, they appear to be a small price to pay in the larger scheme of this hybrid online-meets-offline existence.
For instance, Jeriline admits to getting suffering “big time Zoom fatigue” after her long rounds of video calling yet wouldn’t trade her virtual encounters with her family and friends for anything else. “Though I have started going to office, a lot of work still happens over Zoom or Teams. Then I return home for more video calling in personal life! But as an IT grad, I am happy that people are using technology to communicate. I talk to my friends in the Philippines for at least two or three hours every weekend, sharing updates, celebrating birthdays and special occasions and generally catching up, which I couldn’t think of before Covid struck. With Dubai opening up, I can thankfully meet my friends here in-person but the only way to feel close to my family in Philippines is via video calls,” says Jeriline.
MISSING REAL CONNECTIONS?
Social scientists, for a long time, have been warning about the increasing dependence on virtual relationships impacting the dynamics of real life ones. In 2016, much before the world had heard of Corona, an Oxford university study on online relationships stated what we always knew: that there is no substitute for face-to-face contact when it comes to maintaining relationships.
Yet, the opposite seems to have happened. In close-knit families, technology has actually bolstered relationships and warmth between members. (Those who have drifted away perhaps were never close to begin with!). “We have family video calls much more often now than before,” says Sigma, who has spent the last eight years abroad, away from her family. “My husband and I have weekly calls with my large family and often there are eight mini-screens on WhatsApp video with members joining in from different parts of the world. While I get all sorts of reactions, from uber-active family members to those who cannot get their technology right even if Steve Jobs rose from his grave, I thoroughly enjoy these calls. These moments are what keep the pandemic blues at bay,” she adds.
Ultimately, video calling has become what is being called in many circles as ‘necessary frustrations’. What it does to you and how you react to it depends a lot on the place you are in life and the strength of your relationships. Deepika points to the context of the use of technology, which she believes, cannot be seen in isolation. “It needs to be understood in the context of culture, power and authority. Like love and death, technology is not absolute. I remember, some years ago, when my intellectual-spiritual companion was living in Europe, we used to have Skype calls that used to last for hours. I have spent whole nights talking to him over video calls and I always felt very fulfilled deep within,” she says.
“But at the same time, during the pandemic I realised I was leading a very tech-centric life which could be quite numbing. When the use of laptop and smartphones became too much to deal with, I made an effort to learn calligraphy to feel a sense of paper and pen. Even though I enjoy video calls with my loved ones, I sometimes give them a miss after a very exhausting work week. So, in the end it is not technology but tech-induced mindless communication that’s exhausting,” adds Deepika.
I think it will be interesting to see how tech-enabled relationships (personal and professional) evolve in a few years from now. The virus-induced lifestyle habits may be a bit difficult to shake off but once the borders completely open up and we can finally take off our masks, will we be still exchanging vows or condoling a death over a video call because of the sheer convenience of it?
Or would we be able to finally strike a balance between the virtual and the real?
Hopefully it won’t take another crisis for us to find out.
(Lekha is an editor and journalist based in India.)
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