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From Video Calls to Digital Media Escapism: How Lockdown Created a New Way to Be ‘Alone Together’

‘Zoom Fatigue’ is a new phenomenon brought about by lockdown that many of us have already experienced personally - the latest usage figures from video conferencing apps and social media channels help shed more light on why we feel this way.

Over the past few months, I, like many of you, have undertaken a significant shift in how I communicate with others. After living in London for over three years, regularly video calling with friends and family in Edinburgh was not a new concept to me. However, the minute lockdown was announced, my diary seemed to fill with Zoom quizzes, video calls and virtual catch-ups. It seemed like being connected online became a fundamental need, rather than an option.

For most of us, being connected online has been a large part of our lockdown experience. Technology seemed to fill the hole that losing personal contact created. Video conferencing soared in popularity with Zoom reporting 300 million daily worldwide users during its peak. New players entered the market such as ‘Houseparty’ as well as new product launches including Facebook’s ‘Messenger Rooms’ and ‘Google Meet’. The desire to stay connected was also reflected in our social media usage, with the Facebook Family of apps and Twitter seeing record level usage compared to last year.

Online communication has always been of particular interest to me, it was what shaped my dissertation and academic career. During my second year of University, I attended a lecture on ‘Always on Culture.’ As the name suggests, it is a theory of always being online and connected, with MIT academic Sherry Turkle explaining it as being ‘tethered’ to the devices we consume. In Turkle’s 2011 study, ‘Alone Together,’ she demonstrated that people were using technology to create connections without the need for real friendship. In 2020, we’ve seen what happens when digital relationships almost fully replace real life.

As it turns out, relationships are more difficult and tiring to maintain online. With the growth of communicating remotely and the overwhelming feeling of staying connected, it seems that consumers have replaced staying in touch with escapism. With more people experiencing ‘Zoom Fatigue’, exhaustion caused by video conferencing, users turned to video-led apps. One example of this is the growth of the ephemeral video app, Tik Tok. During the first half of 2020, Tik Tok user base increased from 5.4m in January to 12.9m in April. This success was mirrored in the video streaming site, Twitch, which reached 4.2m site visitors in April – up from 2.3m in January.

Nine years ago, Turkle stated that:

‘We make our technologies, and they, in turn, shape us.’

I feel this encapsulates my experience, and that of my friends, family and colleagues alike over the last few months. The current lockdown experience has changed online communication habits for many. The fundamental need to stay connected has been digitised by force of circumstance due to COVID-19 and led to a growth in new online behaviour that pushes video calls (and the Zoom fatigue that brings) into the forefront of human interaction.

Sources:
Academia.edu – Always on always on you, the tethered self
BBC News
bbc.com – Why zoom calls are so exhausting
Academia.edu – Alone together – Why we expect more from technology and less from each other
econsultancy.com – What are social media platforms doing to help support and inform users
ofcom.com – UK internet usage surges

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