If 2020 was a year of isolation, 2021 was a year of reunions. Hugging and sharing meals with loved ones that you haven’t seen in months is great. But seeing someone in person can feel weird if you’ve only known them from virtual meetings and video chats. Meeting up with Zoom friends in real life shows how much is left out when your computer’s graphics card renders someone: their size, whether they keep eye contact or avoid them, how they look outside of their kitchen. Scary vibes abound. Seeing our virtual friends in person creates something of a pandemic déjà vu. Call it déjà zoom.
If déjà-vu is the feeling of familiarity with something strange and jamais-vu is the feeling of being unfamiliar with something familiar, then déjà zoom is somewhere in between. “It felt like I was just seeing people instead of meeting them,” David Jones, a 35-year-old in Washington, DC, told me about his first encounters with Zoom friends. Déjà zoom can be harrowing or awkward and question the degree to which we are Yes, really know the people we met in quarantine. But it’s also proof of how close we have become to people we’ve never met physically before.
Jones made new friends during the pandemic thanks to his love for the theater. When Broadway closed in the spring of 2020, he decided to contact an actor in Phantom of the opera, his favorite musical, to see if she could offer virtual singing lessons in her newly released schedule. She agreed, and also began teaching group classes, where Jones made several friends, including a woman who invited him to monthly zooms that she organized for virtual table readings of musicals and films. He has since traveled to New York and Florida to meet people from his classes and the table. In October he went to visit with friends from class Phantom of the opera during the reopening weekend to support his teacher.
In pre-pandemic times, Jones had a handful of friends, but said he was struggling to make new ones. “I don’t have a lot of confidence and try not to take up a lot of space in the world,” he said. “Zoom I think made everything feel like a level playing field.” He was more comfortable on video calls because he wasn’t obliged to see people again if they didn’t get along. During the script readings, the group’s shared love for theater and the performance element of the Zoom meetings created a sense of connectedness and vulnerability. Since the pandemic began, Jones has met 25 people who he first befriended through Zoom. Many of them were shocked by his height (he is six feet tall).
Not all of Jones’ Zoom friendships lasted. A woman with whom he spoke for more than a year stopped speaking to him after an unpleasant face-to-face meeting. It’s common, says Amy Johnson, a communications professor at the University of Oklahoma who studies long-distance friendships. Most people avoid conflict in digital communication because it is normalized as a face-to-face interaction (think of the preference to break up with someone in person rather than via text message or even phone call). Without conflict, people can idealize their online relationships and positively supplement missing information about the other person. Real-life meetings can make us feel less connected if the person does not match our idea of them. That nearby void doesn’t need to be treated as a red flag as long as people re-commit to getting to know each other on an intimate level, Johnson told me.
Another alienating aspect of bringing Zoom friendships into the real world is learning other people’s non-verbal habits, which are sometimes poorly or not at all conveyed through video. This lack of clues can lead to interruptions or stilted conversations in virtual group meetings, and it can also lead to discomfort or surprise when we finally meet in person. (It’s also not normal to look at your own face when you meet.) Interacting with a person on Zoom is like seeing them with one eye, said Jeremy Bailenson, a communications professor at Stanford. But personally, where we all use our senses, we can add small but rich layers of detail to our understanding of who other people are and how we perceive them. Bailenson felt disoriented the first time he met a student in his lab, after having only seen her on Zoom for months. That feeling soon faded, however. “You just have to put in the time to learn a new way of being with someone,” he said.
Videochat cannot fully translate non-verbal cues, spatial awareness, or physical touch. Other forms of remote presence offer more promise. That summer, Bailenson taught almost entirely one class in virtual reality; his students wore headsets and interacted as avatars. He sees advantages in having more realistic options for virtual communication beyond the pandemic, especially when travel is unnecessary or challenging. But he also loves real, face-to-face meetings with students and friends.
Meeting even very close friends after long Zoom friendships can be a challenge. Raz Bar-Ziv, a researcher at UC Berkeley, met his friend Tal, a scientist living in Germany, for the first time in Israel this summer, after a year of daily zooming, talking on the phone, and exchanging WhatsApp voice memos. The two had connected through ScienceAbroad, a worldwide network of Israeli scientists, and met while planning an online symposium. When they found out they would both be in Israel that summer, they decided to meet. Bar-Ziv told me it took him a while to realize that Tal was real. Here was this person he knew so well, but when she sat in front of him he felt strange, like she was a stranger. Bar-Ziv wasn’t even sure if they should hug, but when they did it was “like we’ve met many times. We behaved like this very quickly. “
I also spoke to a group of Zoom friends who initially bonded through their self-described shared identity as Latino comedy writers. They were brought together first by Jorge Thomson, who invited four more whom he knew from various grants and workshops. He hoped to create a space for Latino comedy writers to network and share notes about the projects they were working on. When the group began meeting weekly in early 2021, it was scattered across the country in New York, California, Illinois, and Florida. Over the summer, the group first met in a Los Angeles park after being fully vaccinated. “We come from a culture where intimacy is organic but immediate,” said Annelise Dekker-Hernandez, a member of the group. “You feel like a distant family, and so we felt very comfortable right from the start.”
Learning each other’s comedy styles and life stories through the process of the workshop helped the writers build trust. Thomson told me that their shared identity means he doesn’t have to reinterpret his scripts, and he’s comfortable asking questions like “Is there too much Spanish in the script?” And “How do you think about it this Representing our community? ”Another member, Henry Alexander Kelly, told me that the group was curious to see how many friends and connections they had in common. “We literally walked around each other for years,” he said. “Out of nowhere, Zoom Meetings for Latinx Comedy bring this relationship together.”
Perhaps the most surprising thing about Déjà Zoom is that it’s nothing new. Before the pandemic, people made friends online through Reddit and Twitter and their predecessors MySpace and AOL. Even before the Internet, people met strangers as pen pals. Focusing on the novelty of online friendships might miss the point, said Joanna Yau, a researcher at the University of Southern California. Core aspects of meaningful relationships are present in both online and offline friendships, but they manifest themselves differently, she explained. Most people want to feel connected and validated with others, as if they belong. We use SMS, Snapchat, and Zoom differently, but we use them for the same reasons. Even with grainy video and choppy audio, we can share our hopes, fears, and secrets.