Face to Face // Screen to Screen

Real-life encounters limited by lockdown, we've become increasingly reliant on digital meeting platforms. To help navigate us through the number of chat room choices on offer, Anna Robinson talks us through favourites.

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If there’s one thing a national lockdown has given me, it’s time. Weekly screen-time reports never fail to astound me – minding my business, hours deep in another unintentional TikTok binge, I am alerted by a notification that my phone usage has increased by 26% from last week: 7 hours 35 minutes a day. Oh joy. I cannot help but feel annoyed at what feels like a smug report from my iPhone about how many of these precious, productive lockdown hours I am spending on Facebook. Amidst a minor personality crisis that ensued from these reports, I started leaving my phone on a different floor to stop the temptation of hourly scrolls through Instagram (which last for 59 minutes). Yet my report still came back with rather disheartening statistics. I began to realise that the main culprit for my screen time was in fact video calls – that usually my screen time is less because I spend a large proportion of my day gabbing with friends in the material world: now I chatter through the medium of virtual platforms. 

A pre-lockdown world saw screen time as essentially anti-social, unproductive – a way to disconnect from the real world. Now it becomes a tether to a sense of normality, an expansion of my isolation confines where the only people to talk to are my family, my dog, and occasionally myself. I am so grateful that I live in an age where I can see and hear my friends without their immediate, corporeal presence. I am grateful that with a few taps on my screen, four girls in dressing gowns and spot cream can collide in a virtual space, and for a while it feels almost as if things are normal again. With so much time – screentime – I have had the chance to consider my favourite platforms for virtual meetings. They all have a slightly different feel to them; a distinct virtual feng shui if you will. Microsoft teams has an entirely different ~vibe~ than Houseparty, for example, and Facetime is no Zoom call. I’ve tried and tested them all – here are my experiences:

Zoom is a very versatile platform. I had never heard of it before lockdown, but its existence has become a prominent part of my isolation experience. It seems to span the capabilities and needs of a wide range of ages. It’s user-friendly and graciously avoids the appellation ‘party’, which might alarm the Gen X among us. ‘Zoom’ has quickly been turned into a verb; when I ask where mum is I am frequently told she is ‘zooming’ with her yoga friends in the garden, doing a downward dog for all of the neighbours to see as well as her fellow ‘zoomers’. I’ve had zoom calls with my aunts and uncles, the family all gathered presentably around the dining room table while we discuss current affairs and recipe ideas. I’ve had Zoom calls with my college friends, virtual pub quizzes and replacement bops with costumes made hastily from the nearest thing on our bedside. The screenshare option means homemade PowerPoints featuring round after round of guessing the baby photo or ‘who wrote this hideously embarrassing facebook status in 2012?’ I would recommend using alongside your call the app ‘Psych’ – which I was originally very sceptical of but which I now shamelessly endorse: there’s not much new that is happening in lockdown, and this is a good way to get everyone laughing and reminiscing as you answer open-ended questions (with varying degrees of savagery) about each player respectively.

I should now mention that I am a sucker for a Facebook Messenger group call. It’s simple, unostentatious, but it gets the job done. There’s no need for a cumbersome laptop, no need to send out an email with a link – simply call whenever you feel lockdown tantrum number six brewing (or even when you’re emotionally stable but just want to see some familiar faces). As long as you remain on the actual messenger app, you can send photos on the group chat and still see everyone’s faces. This makes it perfect for sending accompanying visual aids to your line of conversation – be these homemade TikToks or a proposed Instagram post that apparently needs a two hour workshop for its accompanying caption (which is usually still unsatisfactory but you have to post in prime hours babes xx). This feature makes it a very productive space for figuring out which depop items you want to spend your student loan on (the answer is everything and all of it) or for sharing those adorable micropig videos you just have to show someone, without having to temporarily leave the virtual room to send them (I’m looking at you, FaceTime).

Next we have Houseparty. Like seemingly everyone, I was initially amazed by this app, but the novelty wore off pretty quickly. It has some pros, some cons. Firstly, it’s very easy to connect with people; there doesn’t need to be an existing group chat, you can simply join any open ‘room’ full of people as long as at least one of the participants is a contact. This informality means it’s easier to talk with people you wouldn’t usually call, but still enjoy catching up with. You can also play games once you’re in a room with everyone, but these are quite simply bad – not so bad that they’re good; just nonsensical and boring. These games also have a tendency to crash your whole phone. Another feature of Houseparty is its compulsion to send out a notification every time you or one of your contacts ‘is in the house’. This is, I feel, a very double edged sword. It means every time you go on the app, all your contacts are implicitly invited to recognise that you have friends you must be calling and how bully for you to be so popular. It also means that you are notified every time someone else is on a call with their friends, and there is a momentary flicker of crushing inadequacy and envy. Of course, with the way Houseparty works you could very easily invite yourself into any conversation you like … but sometimes I just want to be alone and selfishly not know that anyone else is having more fun than I am.

A nice juxtaposition to Houseparty in terms of ethos and ~vibe~ is Microsoft Teams. My only experience thus far has been a start of term meeting with my class. Unsure of the platform’s etiquette, I was hoping to join fuss free around a minute after the link went live – mildly supposing I didn’t want to be the first or last one to (virtually) arrive. My laptop ended up needing to download several updates and then found it difficult to open the actual software. This is not Teams’ fault, but I proceeded to direct my frustration at it nevertheless. I also couldn’t figure out how to zoom the frame out, so all anyone could see when I eventually (virtually) arrived was an intense close up of my face. Again, this was definitely a ‘me problem’ but I shall continue to blame Microsoft for my incompetence. Apart from that I only have one other minor complaint; you can only see four participants at any time. This not only reduces a sense of solidarity and togetherness, but it means I can only scrutinise four backgrounds at once. Virtual learning gives classes another dimension that can be rather satisfying for the curious (prying, nosey and prone to procrastinating) among us: each participant brings a little part of their contextual existence into the frame with them; you see a snapshot of their reality beyond Oxford. One positive of my own camera being so inappropriately zoomed in was that my fellow classmates couldn’t see all the parcels scattered behind me, and my ugly curtains were out of sight.

Admittedly, some of this screentime is spent ordering things online. But a lot of it is spent connecting, even if I’m just listening to my friends breathe as we communally view ‘Too Hot to Handle’ (trash TV at its not-so-finest). My screentime now represents less of a retreat from everyday life and more of a route back to old normality. If I were a pretentious and snobbish English student, I might now quote E. M Forster’s advice: ‘Only connect’. Instead, I will just say I hope you are looking after yourselves in this strange new normal.