My relationship with our new virtual reality? It’s complicated, says Olivia Adams
Until recently, our virtual world was always just a click away. Now, it’s our only world. In the olden days (six weeks ago), evenings would be spent connecting with our human friends in a restaurant, bar or pub. It was reality. It was wonderful.
Video chatting with one another via webcam has become our new ritual. Now, after a long day of staring at my screen for work, I’m not able to physically or mentally ‘log off’ for the evening, as my next laptop shift starts at 20:00 hours.
Of course, catching up with friends isn’t remotely like work (which I’m very grateful to have), but I dread video chatting in the same way I angst over a gym class if I allow it to linger throughout the day.
I appreciate fun vibes with friends can be just what some need right now, in light of the coronavirus pandemic, but for me, as soon as I log on, I think: ‘how soon can I get out of this?’ Especially when it’s quiz night. So far, I’ve managed to skip embarrassing myself on the general knowledge front by hosting them, but they are slightly tedious and my friends complain the questions are too hard (this is a deliberate abandoning tactic, obviously).
Audio over anxiety
Video calls are free, convenient and quick. So what could possibly be wrong with them? Plenty, it turns out. There’s a huge pressure to be upbeat throughout the session, and in a panicked bid to avoid dead space, people are constantly talking at the same time and interrupting each other. This leads to a need to apologise, and the whole experience is not only underwhelming, but mildly stressful.
I’m grateful not to experience social anxiety, but even I’m finding the number of virtual calls I’m being asked to join overwhelming. I find phone calls far more intimate because you actually talk – and listen – without worrying about your reflection.
Even better, you can incorporate an audio phone conversation into your daily exercise allowance, and if you’re (temporarily, please God), back in your childhood bedroom like me, you have privacy to talk openly with your friend about how your parents are ruining your life all over again.
Seeing as I’m back in the family home, video dates haven’t taken off. I attempted one on social chat platform Houseparty and had to plead with my parents to go on a ‘long walk’. They came back 30 minutes later because it ‘looked like rain,’ forcing me to cut it short, and subsequently asked a million questions. I haven’t done one since.
At first, I wore make-up and washed my hair for video chatting. I was striving for a quarantine look that said: I’m trying, but not too hard. By week six, there is no dress code, and there is certainly no make-up.
Instead of being on a hen do in Barcelona with one of my oldest friends last weekend, I received an email invite to join a conference call with her and the other bridesmaids. We drink cocktails with paper umbrellas, much like we would have done in Spain. One difference is we are all bare-faced and in pyjamas. One bridesmaid even has dripping wet hair and is massaging night serum into her face.
After the call, I head downstairs and slump on the sofa. I’m completely exhausted, because for the past hour I have been performing high energy interaction while being watched intently.
The next morning it starts again, but this time, it’s work. From Zoom and Skype to Google Hangouts and Microsoft Teams, there’s a platform for every employer. And while there have been meetings I have found comforting, and I believe did boost productivity, why colleagues insist on video over audio baffles me. Yes, I’m happy you are alive and well, but I don’t need to see you. Please, let me sit with my root regrowth in peace.
In the latest developments, video conferencing apps are now bringing with it question marks over the security and privacy of video chatting. I give you a new verb – Zoombombing – which is the practice of uninvited users crashing into conversations on, you guessed, it Zoom, which has soared to 200 million daily users from 10 million in less than three months.
Meanwhile, people started uninstalling Houseparty in late March after messages on social media claimed other apps on their phones had been hacked after downloading it. The company denied the claims and teens continue to use it, although they are seemingly tiring like me. My colleague tells me her ten-year-old daughter now pretends her screen has frozen while she’s on the app, so she can leave the chats on the grounds of ‘tech issues’. She basically keeps still and mute, her mates ask if she is okay and then she sneakily clicks the tablet off. She’s a genius.
I’d like to enjoy these longer, sunnier days with a sense of hopefulness and calm – rather than sit inside with patchy Wi-Fi signal and awkward virtual run ins. The uncertainty hanging over us isn’t over, but one thing that is certain is I’m officially logging off after working hours.