Could Staring Into a Stranger’s Eyes Cure Zoom Fatigue?

Still, I wondered if the purported exaltedness—or at least, the absence of deceit—of the silent Human Minute wouldn’t be undercut by the fact that all these “authentic” human interactions were taking place over the computer. Two months ago, we were all wringing our hands over politically inclined Russian bots on Facebook and the deteriorating effects of screen time on children’s brains; now that we’re all so starved for human interaction, we’re praying to the gods of Big Tech to save us from our isolation. But as the days (and weeks, and weeks) of social distancing and my procrastination vis-à-vis Human Online went by, I noticed a larger tech-fatigue set in. The eagerness with which my friends proposed Zoom happy hours or Instagram Live yoga classes seemed to dissipate. When people did muster the energy to video chat, there was often a visible desperation to it. They made themselves into potatoes or paid $100 to have a llama attend their meeting. Even during a Zoom Quaker meeting I participated in, a few Friends succumbed to the urge to jazz up their digital milieus. One sat silently in front of a technicolor explosion à la Takashi Murakami, while another placed a (real) bouquet on her table directly in front of her serene face. Many simply opted out of video altogether. Maybe we were finally reaching the breaking point, like the “videophony” users in Infinite Jest who are so anxiety-ridden over having to see themselves on screen all the time that they go from opting for flattering composite images of their faces, to investing in masks engineered to look like better-looking versions of themselves, to purchasing special 2D tableaux in front of which a model spoke to the other caller, to finally going back to using regular phones.

After numerous failed attempts and internal pep talks, I finally signed in after midnight one Sunday. I felt protected by the night and the guarantee of solitude. A knot tightened in my chest; I tried to ignore the clutter of survivalist accoutrement in my background and aimed a desk lamp strategically at my tired, tense visage. I envisioned my fellow traveler—a Saudi Arabian sheik, a grizzled Icelandic fisherman, a Berlin EDM enthusiast with multiple face piercings—and agreed to the guidelines, clicked “connect.” There, looking back at me, was a young woman with brown hair draped over her head, reclining on a bed or couch, wearing a tank top that revealed an elaborate upper-arm tattoo. I smiled sheepishly at her, and she smiled back. I tried to look directly at her, but I felt my eyes darting around, un-Zen-like. That wouldn’t do. I quieted myself after a few seconds, thinking, “OK, this is it, we’re about to experience something.”

We probably made it 10 seconds before she ended the connection. I felt panicked, insulted, embarrassed. Was she expecting something more exotic (a Saudi Arabian sheik, perhaps) or more illicit? Someone with a calmer aura? Maybe she’d simply gotten whatever spiritual fulfillment she needed and left me with a kind of eye contact blue balls. After our video ended, a message popped up asking whether I wanted to report inappropriate behavior or “move on from this experience.” Above this was a button you could click on if you wanted to thank the other person, beneath an emoji of a hands in a loose prayer position. “The other person thanked you,” I was informed. I thanked her back out of politeness, but rolled my eyes while I did.

The second time I tried the site was an afternoon altogether too sunny to reflect my/our malaise; I was surprised that, despite being dead exhausted from child-wrangling and not a Human Online newbie, I was almost as nervous as I had been the previous time. In lieu of deep breathing exercises beforehand, I went to the bathroom to stare at my unfashionably ombre, greasy hair in the mirror and curse. The first thing I noticed about my new partner was that he had a significant resemblance to cult leader Larry Ray, so my guard was up. I remembered Amaya, the site’s cofounder, telling me he sometimes felt “more tense” when paired with a man, and then spent a second envisioning all the hypothetical dicks my friend presumed I’d encounter.

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