Zoom Fatigue: How to Overcome

A whiteboard is shown and for each day of the week, scheduled online meetings on zoom or facetime.
Zoom Fatigue! Photo Illustration: Dave Cole/WSJ

Dear Ms. Smartphone: After a meeting or two on Zoom, and even a catch-up with girl friends, I am zonked out. Sometimes I skip meals because I feel so fatigued and crawl into bed. It’s just the opposite for my son, who is now home from college. He goes on Zoom in the evening with his friends, and stays on it for hours. Then he’s spry and awake! Is this an age thing or something else?  Rupa, Berkeley

Dear Rupa: A lot of parents are asking the same thing. For elders, it’s an age thing because we did not come of age in the time of zoom. And, the two-way technology is still evolving so there are lots of asynchronous moments and dropped connections to challenge our patience. In a previous post I noted how our physical communications depend on being able to interpret very subtle non-verbal cues like an upturned smile, the twitch of an eye, or the flick of the hair. Most of these cues are at a subliminal level. Zoom meetings, as well as informal chats with our friends, can be stressful for those of us used to processing our social cues differently. 

The Lack of Multitasking

Like you, I find video chats to be draining but for an additional reason; it’s the absence of multi-tasking. When you phone me, say on a voice call or text, I might be doing other things….but you can’t see that.  We have gotten used to being mobile and doing lots of (other) things when we have 2 way communication. That level of distraction works most of the time, but not in the car. Focusing for an extended time on the red dot of the camera feels like I am in line-up in a police station (not that I will confess to that!)

Search for Best Zoom Games

When your son goes on Zoom and feels spry afterwards, that’s because he engages with his friends and content, in an entirely different manner. There are lots of third-party sites to link to, The list of games is long…but familiar. Search for games to play on Zoom: you’ll find Monopoly, Battleship, Pictionary, Guess Who, and many many more. Then there are the ‘Drinking Game’ versions, like Battleship with shot glasses….you get the picture! And, to my point about multi-tasking, just one kid needs to be on a computer. The rest can join in on their phones.  That means that they do not have to stay stationary, with eyes glued to the red dot. They are probably moving around the room, browsing other screens, and, of course, eating and drinking.

THINK LIKE A TEEN

In these times of quarantine, I would encourage anyone to try out these games with an old established  friend and picture yourself as a young teen. Experiment together. Put it this way: Imagine that it was 1915 and your family had just installed a new Bell phone. You were advised to use it only for emergencies or something urgent. Now fast-forward to 1960, and you are a teen, able to spend hours after school conversing with friends on Bell phones. My point is that technology changes over time, and what is once serious business morphs into social play.

Memes: Why So Popular?

What is it about Memes? Am I missing out?

A meme that won't bite. There is a picture of two wirefox terriers side by side. One has a horrible haircut and one is groomed. Is your dog groomer qualified?
A meme that won’t bite!

Dear Ms. Smartphone: I don’t usually browse much online but during the quarantine, I was scrolling on Instagram and came across your site. There was a picture of a sign-board, and a meme you called the ‘me me.’ It seemed like a big joke, but not to me. My 12 year old preteen and her friends talk about memes all the time. Can you explain memes please and let me in on the joke! Lea, Belvedere

Dear Lea: Without sounding like a communications PhD, the word meme comes from Greek mimema, signifying something which is imaged. Memes have a tendency, like the times we live in, to go viral. Memes are pieces of cultural information that pass along from person to person, but gradually scale into a shared social phenomenon.

When people like you and me post on social media we are neither professional journalists nor story tellers. We need to create content that is simple, entertaining, and attention grabbing. And, the words and graphics need to be bite-sized, like our smartphones. Once we post, there are few social constraints: sometimes we don’t know, and sometimes we don’t care if the content is offensive or misinterpreted.

Inside Jokes?

During an earlier time of TV and newspapers, content was transmitted from ONE (the media corporation) to MANY (the public). The Internet flips that equation. There is a price for that: content is now fast, free and uncensored. Think of it like playing an old-fashioned game of ‘telephone’; the original message morphs over time and through different oral speakers, often in funny ways.

For most teens, memes are probably a safe way to share ‘inside’ jokes. They are old enough to separate meme- talk from real-talk. This is important because a lot of content does seem to me to condone aggression, bullying, taking drugs and alcohol, or being a smart-aleck.

What if we believe them?

I have two worries: one is that younger children who are not old enough to comprehend the subtlety will come to view the adult-world with cynicism and disrespect. Take, for example, the bizarro memes about Bert and Ernie. Today’s kids don’t watch Sesame Street so they just see puppet figures talking trash. On a broader level, I worry that the content treadmill will spiral even more outlandish, off-color memes in order to grab our increasingly jaded attention.

Like a virus that spreads without vaccines, there are limits to what you can do as a parent right now, except limit your kid’s exposure (i.e. time on the Internet). Perhaps ask your preteen to help you create a meme (disclaimer: this is not a recommendation for the site, just an example). Once your meme is posted, follow it with your daughter to see how often that message is remixed and shared. It may be one of the few things to enjoy that goes viral these days.

Smartphones & TikTok & Quibi

I want to watch things on my phone…what’s wrong with that?

An anime from the Japanese TV series Dr. Stone. The cartoon character brandishes a smartphone.
TV anime series, Dr.Stone

Dear Ms. Smartphone: I am confused by your last post. Jacob, my boyfriend, asked you whether he should download the Quibi app to his phone. I like Quibi and recommended it. But you gave him a mouthful about Marshall McLuhan and using TikTok. I am not understanding. Too much time indoors? Aimee (girlfriend to Jacob, MV).

Dear Aimee: Apologies if I was unclear or did not give the answer you expected! I’ll try again:

When we download and then use an app we are choosing to hand-over our two most precious resources: our time and our attention. In digital matters we also give up privacy, something I stressed on with video ads.

That said, the most valuable thing we can do to seize back our Time, our Attention, and our Privacy is to become more of a producer, and less of a consumer. Imagine you had the tools to read words and numbers but lack the tools to write or draw. You miss half of the communications equation- the result is a one-sided, top-down state of information flow. It’s critical to both Read and Write!

Phones have been interactive from the time of Bell. We listen, we talk, and today we text. I cite McLuhan to suggest how different technologies ‘bake in’ different types of interaction. We love phones because they are an extension of ourselves and what we share. With smartphones we pass along memes, video and photography, recordings, and more.

Using our phones for one-way, TV like content like strikes me as a throw-back to older media, say cinema. If anything, more of us need to learn more about the editing and composition tools for images and video, as well as the inner-workings of our phone.

So, I’m not recommending that you start using TikTok. Tik-Tok is a teen-centric, easily dismissed beginning. I am told that it has a multitude of security issues. Some say that even Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook doesn’t see its potential. But, hidden in plain sight, is a nascent language that’s going to emerge.

We should strive to understand how algorithms monitor us; also, what makes some content, say daily memes, totally entertaining, and why do others seems totally repulsive. How do cuts and jumps in video production work and how do they change what we see or feel? We need to learn to identify when we are being spoofed and how to spoof others too. It’s all in our hands.