Do you remember your first Zoom meeting?
I have very fond memories of mine: it was on the 17th March 2020 and it was a ‘Zoom-ba’ session. I remember being weirdly excited about it. After all, back then Zoom was a whole new world, full of mystery, mute buttons, embedded chats and those ‘reactions’. True, FaceTime and Skype had been around for a while but speaking to people online had never seemed as much fun when you had the option to see them in person. It became clear pretty quickly that Zoom was going to be the new bar, gym, restaurant and dance studio: for a while, there was something charming about it all.
Online Zumba sessions are still great. Online tutorials, not so much. I mean, Oxford tutorials already had a bad rep. They were the reason people tell all those terrifying stories about tutors: how they do things like throw a rugby ball at you and expect you to catch it, or expect you to know how long a piece of string is or ask you if you think you are ‘clever enough’ for this. And those stories were based on a world where tutorials actually happened in person.
With everyone stuck behind a screen, tutorials have suddenly gotten a whole lot scarier – now, anything really could happen. Your tutor’s dog might come in. Your parents may start vacuuming. Your neighbour might get a rowing machine. Your sibling could suddenly decide that their new lockdown hobby is going to be learning to play the saxophone.
I dare not even mention the ‘technical difficulties’: I was in a class the other day, halfway through answering my tutor’s question when, lo and behold, everyone else on the call suddenly froze. I felt that familiar sinking feeling as I realised it was my WiFi that had gone down and that I too had probably frozen on everyone else’s screen with a horrendous facial expression of me mid-word, mid blink.
But even without temperamental WiFi, it just seems that there are so many more ways to commit a social faux-pas in this online arena: are you supposed to join a call a few minutes earlier than the start time, or do you wait until the clock strikes the hour exactly? What are you meant to talk about with your tutor while you wait for your tutorial partner to join the call? Surely, I am not the only one who has nightmares about trying to speak on a call when my microphone is off or about accidentally sharing my screen. And I cannot decide which is worse: the awkward “You go first!”, “No, you go first!” exchange when you and your tutorial partner both start speaking at the same time, or the endless silences when no one dares respond to what the tutor has said for fear of speaking over someone else.
It hasn’t just been tutorials, classes, lectures and labs that have moved into the realm of the online: people have been getting really creative about online socialisation too. We have seen everything from online bops and ‘wine nights’ to Netflix dates and cooking classes. And how could anyone possibly forget The Zoom Quiz?
Honestly, though, the novelty of online life wore off a while ago. While online tutorials have some upsides – no, of course I am not talking about the terribly convenient and probably much-overused ‘my WiFi cut out’ excuse that presents itself every time an impossible question is thrown at you – they do have a tendency to leave one feeling intellectually drained, without having provided any of the authentic social interaction which usually makes up for it.
The point is, no one is zooming through their online tutorials these days. As if navigating a degree wasn’t enough of a challenge, we are now all being forced to navigate what seems like a minefield of online social etiquette as well. Rugby balls or not, tutorials are stressful and the last thing anyone needs to worry about is whether or not they are coming across as a seasoned video-caller. Sometimes a dog barking in your tutor’s study or a flatmate in a towel accidentally walking across the back of your tutorial partner’s screen is exactly what you need to remind you that the people at the other end of the call are just as unpolished and real as you.
Not to mention that even online social calls can be exhausting. If you’re anything like me, you may find that excessive video-calling can sometimes just leave you feeling lonelier than before. Stay in touch with loved ones, but remember: you do not need to be online to be in-touch. Two of my friends, who I have not seen for months now, gave me a mug some years ago with this quote on it: ‘Good friends are like stars: you don’t always see them but you know they’re always there.’ Zoom is just our temporary telescope. If you can, make the most of the stars that you can see whether they are your family, your flatmates, your walking buddies or just your pets.
And the next time you start talking at the same time as someone else on a Zoom call (because it just will happen again), take it as a reminder that we are not robots who always know when to speak and when to mute ourselves. Laugh about it. Soon enough, we will be meeting in a bar, talking over each other and sharing grins instead of screens. Hopefully, time will zoom by until then.
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