The owner of your company sits in a mansion during an all-office Zoom town hall. A coworker’s houseplants look unhealthy, their room messy. Your parents cook dinner in your nostalgic childhood kitchen. A friend reclines in bed, talking just before going to sleep, against a backdrop of wrinkled sheets. In COVID-19 quarantine, our constant video chats come with an added, sometimes involuntary, edge of domestic voyeurism and exhibitionism.
Advances in digital technology have a way of inducing new habits that in turn create new forms of social etiquette and signaling, because humanity can’t seem to help itself when it comes to claiming individuality. For early-internet forum posting it was the avatar or the signature; for instant-messaging it was the evocative away message; for Instagram the like-grabbing selfie; and for Slack the emoji response or aggressive DM. During the pandemic, communication, particularly professional communication, has turned to video chat for many of us. As this platform becomes the new default of interaction, we also have to contend with it as a means of self-expression, which primarily occurs in the background of the window—the Zoom frame or FaceTime square.
It’s not even a whole image. Occluded by the foreground subject of our heads like a Baroque portrait painting, the Zoom background is just a glimpse into whatever space we happen to be in at the time: the corner of a room, the top of a table, a slice of view from a nearby window. It’s just what the camera of our laptop or phone can capture, a fixed, mechanical view. And yet that bit of information communicates so much, particularly in our current quarantine. It shows off, intentionally or not, both where we choose to be and where we are able to be during this crisis.
The background of a chat with friends or colleagues might be a sliver of a city apartment, dark even during the middle of the day. Or it could be the confines of a childhood bedroom where work calls now need to be taken, if you landed (with proper precautions) at a parent’s home. Or it’s a cabin in the countryside, rented temporarily or bought previously, with a yellow-green field outside and flowers starting to bloom. Or it’s an inexplicably huge mansion somewhere, sprawling carpets, airy living rooms, and who even knows how or why an acquaintance has access to such a space? If you know where someone usually lives, then the sudden contrast of their background is instructive and unavoidable. In this brave new world, our home interiors are our new avatars, and they’re more honest than most.
Over the past few weeks, the Zoom background has appeared to me as the final symbol of the internet’s loss of anonymity and breach of personal privacy. Where once we had nonsense screen names, we now have Facebook profiles that require our real names, Facebook-attached Instagram accounts that document our intimate personal lives, and, finally, video-chat platforms that require the exposure of our homes in order to create the illusion of shared space online. That we might let all of our friends, colleagues, and contacts look into our homes at a moment’s notice is a shared expectation that’s part of the new digital social order.
Once upon a time, the computer was likely to be in the least glamorous place in the house, umbilically tethered to the modem. Throughout my childhood, our desktop was confined to the basement, where space for the blocky setup was plentiful, and where it could be more easily ignored. There was little natural light, and the backdrop to our ’90s webcam was a pile of storage boxes. Those spaces bring to mind what the writer and developer Paul Ford deemed “the American room” in 2014 — the generic beige backdrop to countless YouTube videos, both anonymous and mundane. Ford contrasted the American room with our digital “fantasy homes,” the extravagant, colorful moodboards we make on Pinterest or the aspirational Instagram accounts we follow.
In 2020, the computer and the internet are fully emancipated from the basement. They occupy the entirety of our domestic spaces via our laptops and phones, particularly when we’re marooned at home all day anyway, practicing self-surveillance for the sake of some shred of interpersonal connection. (Screens are now our principal mode of connection, instead of disconnection.) Social media has put the rest of physical space online, a process that the COVID-19-era video-chat window completes. You are not allowed to be anonymous, neither in your identity nor your surroundings.
A situation occurs that I’ve now heard about from a few friends. You log in to a work Zoom meeting and everyone has their video turned on. Suddenly you can see into a menagerie of rooms and homes, some generic or simple, others less so. One friend, a lawyer, got a glimpse of her boss’s multimillion-dollar D.C. apartment while she was taking the call from inside of her studio’s one closet so as not to disturb her boyfriend. The Zoom background immediately crosses the professional-personal boundary and eliminates any illusion of in-office equality. It’s as if everyone had just said their salaries out loud. The impersonal veneer of office life is breaking down into something more intimate, and maybe more accurate when it comes to inequality; coworkers can and do judge you.
I’ve heard an aggrieved sense of intrusion: Why do I have to let these people see my apartment? If you wouldn’t invite your coworkers over for a dinner party, why should you be expected to let them in virtually? We’re not used to this level of exposure, even on social media. It turns out that the gaze of the Instagram app is actually much less intimate because you can curate it so tightly — stories and posts are a series of explicitly controlled glimpses that are composed and aggregated over time. Zoom is a frank look, an unflattering moving image of what’s actually around you at a given moment.
There’s an opportunity for conspicuous consumption in the video background. All it takes are a few signs to evaluate someone’s income or taste. A sprawling marble countertop and a hint of sunlight suggest a deluxe Nancy Meyers kitchen. A cliche dorm-room poster comes off as less mature than a painting mounted on the wall. A $500 Herman Miller Aeron chair is as visible behind your shoulders as a diamond tiara would be on your head. With Zoom, there’s an expectation that your “fantasy home” — the daydream of your digitally curated taste — exist in your actual space as well. It’s like Andy Warhol said: You might as well just tie your money up and hang it on the wall.
The humblebrag of upscale quarantine was unignorable in a recent New York Times article about the video-chat habits of tech CEOs. Stewart Butterfield, founder of Slack, which has a current market capitalization of $15 billion, Zooms from an austere attic with skylights and exposed wooden beams in San Francisco. Sundar Pichai, CEO of Alphabet, is shown in his home office, which features bookshelves extending up to the high ceiling, huge windows blown out by the camera, and some kind of strange monolith-slash-fireplace. We know these people are unfathomably rich and yet we’re not usually confronted with the evidence and details of it, certainly not so casually. At least when you follow someone on Instagram you’re voluntarily opting in to their lifestyle porn.
For office workers whose offices now exist solely in video chats, it’s obvious that everyone’s at home; being anywhere else would be both morally wrong and dangerous, both for themselves as well as those who still need to work out in the world. Yet the universality of this situation presents a kind of excuse for those who would otherwise be more hesitant about showing off their material surroundings, if Instagram stories are any indication. The quarantine posts the feed serves me are all wandering through European villas, meals in sprawling dining rooms, and walks in the sun-dappled woods — or else old vacation photos. Wish we were back there!
The perception is that through at-home video chat, we’re all exposing ourselves equally. In reality, the exposure is riskier for those who own less, or live in more precarious situations, or simply aren’t emotionally up for the enforced closeness and the need to curate. It’s easier for someone who’s wealthier to present the right image. But my home doesn’t need to look like your home, or match the expectations of a colleague or friend, let alone a boss. Right now, anyone who can stay inside and confine their work to Zoom meetings is already more privileged than many. On Zoom, you don’t need to source scarce PPE.
“Our house is our corner of the world,” Gaston Bachelard writes in The Poetics of Space. “It is our first universe, a cosmos in every sense of the word.” That’s even more intensely true when we’re confined to it 95 percent of the time. It’s a space we create for ourselves, not for others. Bachelard describes “the intimate harmony of walls and furniture.” That feeling might be something that doesn’t translate to the internet, or that we should keep offline.
I’ve taken to switching locations to modulate my Zoom intimacy. Each backdrop communicates something different and lends a discrete vibe to the interaction. I do any work video calls in my girlfriend and my apartment’s office room, where, when I place my laptop on the desk, the camera points only at the juncture between the back wall and the ceiling, an anonymous beige. It’s certainly not fancy or impressive, but I like that it doesn’t communicate anything at all. For casual FaceTimes there’s the kitchen countertop, where we’re always sitting anyway, or moving back and forth doing endless cooking. Then for serious hangouts there’s the living room couch, where the laptop on the coffee table with friends’ faces on it becomes like a hearth, the illusion of people gathered together. When we’re sitting there, the camera can see the blue expanse of cushions, some Japanese masks hanging on the wall, maybe flowers on the table. It’s the most personal space in the apartment.
Otherwise, for all of these office Zoom happy hours and possibly unnecessary video meetings, filters might be the solution. In the absence of socialism and housing regulation in which we are all given access to the same resources, better to just blank everything out and use the software to put yourself on a monochrome field. Or better yet, return to the earlier days of the internet when an identity was something you made up for yourself and then discarded. That’s the real revolutionary potential of our video-chat and face-tracking technology: we can all finally be made equal, beauty-filtered and anonymized, floating in cyberspace as optimized versions of ourselves. The Snap Camera app can overlay any Snapchat filter onto Zoom. I would suggest that we all adopt the potato filter, which one woman accidentally got stuck with. That way, no one can possibly be judged for the neatness of their desk or the contents of their home.