This is The Lost Year, a series of stories about our lived experiences in 2020, as told to Vox critic at large Emily VanDerWerff.
Zoom fatigue is real. In early May, I asked a good friend of mine if she wanted to hop on Zoom, and she sighed. “I’m so sick of Zoom,” she said. “I just can’t do it anymore.” For so many of us, the endless array of virtual meetings at work and virtual hangouts with friends takes a toll that only further reminds us we’re not actually in a room with people.
So when I talked to Melanie — a Seattle fitness studio owner who has switched to teaching classes via Zoom — I expected to hear a full consideration of what Zoom fatigue truly means. After all, fitness classes are not the easiest thing to adapt for a videoconferencing environment. But Melanie made me totally rethink the concept of Zoom fatigue and just what we mean when we talk about it. Not only is she teaching fitness classes via Zoom, but she’s also reconnected with a group of college friends to play Dungeons & Dragons, just like they used to back in the day.
“It’s almost like we’ve connected our two rooms together,” Melanie said as we chatted over — you guessed it — Zoom. “There’s an intimacy about that.” She’s right, and I loved the way she made me reevaluate this piece of technology that’s become so ubiquitous because of the pandemic.
This is Melanie’s 2020 story, as told to me.
A lot of independent boutique fitness studios will probably say this: Our studio is like a community. We have people who come in to be with us, and when I say “us,” I’m not just talking about the instructors. I’m talking about fellow students. In the before-coronavirus times, people would come in for our Sunday classes and then go to lunch afterward. It’s a big friend group.
Keeping that going, to me, was nonnegotiable. It’s been a lifeline. I don’t have very big classes but when we meet up [over Zoom], we check in with each other. We see how we’re doing. I teach a fitness form called Nia, which is very much about having a focus and an intent. This week, for instance, the focus is posture and our intent is to connect to the dancer within. There’s an element of it that’s intellectualizing, but it’s also getting to know the body and connecting to each other. Being able to see each other on screen and have a good time, that’s been really medicinal for me.
A lot of fitness instructors who have gone on Zoom have said, “Pay what you can. Maybe don’t pay at all.” I believe in a sliding scale. I would rather, if someone wants to dance and wants to move and they don’t have money, that they come to us. We’ll work something out. But if people are giving away their talent for free, that drives down our ability to make money. Particularly for yoga and other modalities that are well served, you can get yoga for free online or with an Amazon Prime subscription. That makes it very difficult for someone to keep a studio open.
When the pandemic began, people would give out their Zoom links, and people would come in with the link and never pay their instructor. That instructor still has to pay their rent. They have to buy groceries. I’m fortunate that I have a job in addition to the studio, and my business partner also has a job. But we still have to pay rent on the studio space even though we can’t go in it. Reminding people of these things is really important.
Some people can’t pay, and I tell them the door is open. But we’ve had people who have jobs and keep paying for the service because they’re interested in keeping the studio open. There’s lots of opportunities to do that in your community. And it’s not just fitness studios. Small businesses everywhere that have the ability to have some sort of an online virtual presence, it’s really important to support them and help them go on because that way, when this is over, you can still go and have the fabric of your community.
My Sunday in-person classes used to regularly bring in 20 people or so. Now, if it’s around 10, that’s good. A lot of that is people who just don’t want to be on Zoom. They’re on Zoom all the time for meetings, or Zoom is not really made for fitness classes. It’s choppy. So the people who are sticking with us are sticking with us because they want to keep our space open.
We have playlists and routines that are very consciously emotionally stirring. That’s part of what we do. But that gets lost when you don’t have a bunch of people experiencing that together in the same room. There is a kind of vibration, even if you just have five people together. If you’re doing something really cool, or if you laugh if I lose my balance, everybody is having a good time. That gets lost.
And yet with Zoom, there is a different connection. It won’t replicate the in-person experience. But there is a one-on-one connection with the instructor. I do my absolute best to connect with everybody who comes into my class. I might even say, “Look at what Judy’s doing!” and people will look and see how cool it is. It’s a different kind of connection but it’s still sustaining.
I’ve been thinking about Zoom fatigue in the context of a movement class. If I’m up and moving and dancing for people, I almost feel like I’m not only getting exercise for myself, I’m also encouraging people and hopefully lifting them up. There’s a bit of a performance aspect to it. And the routines I’ve been teaching recently have been very consciously sunny as the days in Seattle get shorter and darker and gloomier. The one I have right now is very focused on dancers, so I might send people a picture of flamenco dancers or a clip of Bob Fosse and I’ll say, “Look at their posture.” It’s good to bring people into this experience where it’s healthy and invigorating. But you’re also putting on a show for yourself. That’s a real opportunity with Zoom.
I don’t get Zoom fatigue when I think about it that way. When I think about Zoom fatigue is when I have meeting after meeting after meeting and I have to be on screen in a certain way, if there are parts of me that I feel like I need to keep battened down at a certain level and I have to maintain that level for eight hours and I have to do it through a screen. You have to decide if you need to wear makeup or make sure your lighting is great or know what people are seeing in the background. There are all these little X factors that we don’t think about when we’re in person.
I already worked from home in my other job as a writer. Adding Zoom to that wasn’t a lot of change. I still do phone interviews. I meet with my co-workers. Right now I’m much more casual about my hair being a wreck or whatever. But it wasn’t a big change. I feel super lucky right now as a Black woman, at a time when the pandemic is killing off a lot of Black people in general, that I get to work from home.
When the pandemic first began, I had to remind people when they would ask, “Why are people out there [working]?” that those people have no choice. A lot of the people who are getting sick don’t have a choice. If I have Zoom fatigue, I can take a half-hour nap. Front-line workers don’t have that luxury.
Zoom is also rebuilding connections for me. My friends and I played Dungeons & Dragons in college — we were in Chicago in the dead of winter, and we had no money. It was the best way to kill an entire weekend. And then we left college, and everybody went their separate ways.
In the summer of 2019, we went to visit my friend in San Francisco, and we didn’t know what to do. He said, “I have this really short D&D game. Let’s do that.” It was fun but we never finished it. The pandemic happened, and he called up and said, “Why don’t we finish that game over Zoom?” So we did. I told a couple of friends, and they said, “I would totally do that with you!” We invited another friend who started being our dungeon master.
For playing D&D, the Zoom experience has been great. My college friends and I are hanging out more over Zoom than we have in years. Like my friend I used to play with in college, who worked in government and quit and now works in Virginia as a gentlewoman farmer, I had seen her maybe once in the last 10 years and now I see her every month. I’m connecting with people that I care about on a face-to-face basis much more than I had before.
This whole experience has brought home the idea of making sure that the weave of your social fabric is together, by any means necessary. When we finally get back in the studio, I’ve had a couple of people ask, “Are you going to keep doing online classes?” And I said, “Yeah.” This is the new world. We have to maintain the connection.
My husband and I were in a long-distance marriage for five years and would watch Buffy together on the phone. There was a real sweetness about that because we would be having a singular experience on a screen in front of us, even though we couldn’t see each other. There was this screen where we shared this story that we both loved and connected with, and we could talk about it while it was happening and then be on the phone afterward to talk about it and also be like, “I miss you. I love you.”
Zoom is also having a shared screen experience. Part of the Dungeons & Dragons magic, for instance, is that you’re having a shared experience and you’re actually seeing the other person sharing the experience. Like, I can see you now, and it’s almost like you’re sitting across from me. You could say, “Oh, there’s Mel, and there’s a lamp behind her and the messy bookcase,” and I can see your picture behind you. It’s almost like we’ve connected our two rooms together. There’s an intimacy about that.
But it’s not everything. I was watching Lovers Rock, one of the installments of Small Axe, and there’s a scene at a house party where they pull the music out and everybody is still dancing and singing together. They’re just close. God, I miss that. I want to have all those people who I’ve been playing Dungeons & Dragons with, or been in class with, and have moments that aren’t just virtual. The virtual connection has facilitated not feeling so alone. But at the same time, it’s made me so aware of not taking for granted the times we can spend together.
Next: A quiet year, alone in one’s head
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