By Joe Cheung

Apr 10, 2021

[This was written in lockdown, before I had my 2 doses, so bear with me.]

Even when Zoom works, it sucks.

1:1 Calls

As a listener, giving feedback is hard. In real life, you can keep talking while the listener gives you verbal feedback. With the slightest bit of lag on Zoom, verbal feedback like, “mm hm”, “yeah”, and “interesting” inevitably become interruptions that completely disrupt the speaker’s momentum and train of thought. With bad audio, it’s even worse because the speaker will think you’re genuinely interrupting them and you will have to explain “oh nothing, go on”.

These moments of incomprehensibility erode the speaker’s gauge of how much information loss there is, which taxes how much further they are confident to continue. Verbal feedback is important in the information-sharing mode of conversation, but is even more important in the rant/problem-listening mode because it is how you show empathy.

Non-verbal feedback is neutered on Zoom. In real life, you (as the speaker) can gauge your listener’s attention by the changes in their expression to what you say, but on Zoom good luck making sense of pixelated faces when internet connection is slow or their camera quality straight up sucks.

Conversations in real life also usually happen along shared activities like having lunch, where you can gauge their interest by how much they’re focusing on their food and you. On Zoom, they can only look in the camera, often doing nothing else, so you can’t judge how much attention they’re giving you (other than them looking down on their phones).

So the speaker has to worry about how much you’re comprehending, and as the listener, you have to worry about how well the speaker’s receiving your feedback. This takes away your RAM so your have less focus on what you’re talking about, so you lose your train of thought a lot more.

Interrupting is also very hard on Zoom. I usually prefer a more dynamic communication style, where I can say uh-huhs and I-knows to signal I’m already familiar with what the speaker’s talking about so they can spend less time explaining it. I can also ask questions to signal my ignorance to make them clarify and lower the compression closer to ELI5. If I disagree with a premise or their prior feels wrong, I can interject and arrive at the crux of disagreement immediately without having to wait until they’ve delivered their whole argument. In Zoom, no matter how you modulate your tone or volume, it feels rude to interrupt the speaker. Without these usual mechanisms to speed up, conversations become a lot less efficient and frustrating.

Group Game Socials

Okay, group games on Zoom are actually not too bad. Skribbl.io, Avalon, Codenames etc work pretty well and are usually way easier to set up and play online. They don’t have the pitfalls of Zoom group conversations because they usually have fixed time slots allocated for every participant/team, and it’s when it’s your turn to speculate who the bad guys are for example, everyone else is expected to listen to you. Everyone is coordinated towards the same objectives, so what you say is bound by the game rules and what’s immediately relevant to the gameplay.

Normal group conversations, on the other hand, are the complete opposite.

Group Calls

In real life, I’m used to a very high-density communication style in group conversations where there is a lot of cross-talk, interjection, exclamation, and changes in physical orientation, all of which are neutered for the same reasons in 1:1 meetings.

Zoom sucks especially for group conversations because you lose the evolving optionality of group social dynamics. Only one person can legibly talk at a time, so you can’t switch conversation partners, you can’t expand and readjust your attention towards different individuals.

Conversations with more than 4 participants usually break into groups of 2-4 (though I’m increasingly convinced good discussions don’t happen with more than 3 people). Some participants will withdraw, sometimes by choice (taking phone calls), or they simply don’t have anything they wanna say. Sometimes, withdrawal is involuntary when they aren’t taking up their fair share of conversational space, nor are they comfortable enough (or not reciprocated) to splinter into a side discussion.

On Zoom, everyone but the speaker is forced into this involuntary spectator position. It suffocates our ability to react and self-regulate. By placing ourselves in compact 2D boxes with a single line of audio output, we throttle the cognitive bandwidth that evolution has endowed us with, and damn it, I want to communicate.

Fundamental Limit

A dark horse theory is that we’re all simply so damn ugly on Zoom. Good audio is much more easily achieved than good video, and anyone who spends enough time on Youtube knows sounding crisp is far more important than looking crisp. Obviously, decent mic quality is much more easily achieved than 8K camera quality. Until everyone manages to set up a minimum-1080p video with sweet sweet bokeh, I propose maybe we should all revert to phone calls to catch up with friends.

I am Narcissus and the little Zoom square is my lake.

- Everyone since covid

We evolved to look to catch all the unconscious subtleties of your handsome faces. I’m sorry but no matter how many times you take a sneak at yourself, you still look like a pitiful smudge of an eyesore on my end via my 900kB Internet connection. Yes, I’ve already complained to my ISP about it.

¯_(ツ)_/¯

Can other platforms solve these problems? There are a couple of video call software that shows the floorplan of a workspace where you can drag your avatar around, and the closer you get to another person’s avatar, the louder their audio, simulating side-conversations happening in your auditory periphery. I haven’t tried any of these because they’re all in beta, if not alpha, and the people I know haven’t entered their network effect yet. Maybe they can come up with some creative solutions, but as far as I can tell, the issues for 1:1 calls still persist.

Some tech companies have been expanding rapidly since the pandemic and even claim to have solved work-from-home. Stripe even has a new hub (other than San Francisco, Japan, Singapore etc) that is fully remote, so I’m very curious how they solve Zoom. Let me know if you have any ideas.

In the meantime I just wanna go back to meeting friends IRL.

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