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Collage by Danielle A. Scruggs/Vox; Zoom submissions by Bridget Armstrong/Vox, @bugloaf, Allegra Frank/Vox, Neville Amaria, @AMushnick, @EliM0108, @murmurationn, @brwhyan and @tdorie

13 ways of looking at a Zoom background

What can a Zoom background reveal as the world fights a pandemic? So much.

I.

Among 20 rapt video chatters,

The only moving thing

Was the animated Zoom background I made using this handy Twitter tutorial.

(Zoom, the popular video conferencing platform, announced its virtual video background feature on January 22, 2020. The feature allows users to display looping videos behind them while on a call, to create dynamic displays, or in some cases engage in advanced-level trolling, The company had already allowed for virtual backgrounds — static ones, including a recently added green screen feature — and the upgrade to video seemed to complete the quest to sophisticate the Zoom background. The update couldn’t have been more timely: Just one day prior to the announcement, the US discovered its first confirmed case of the novel coronavirus.)

II.

I was of three minds,

Like a Zoom conference

In which there are three backgrounds.

(An unspoken element of work-from-home video chats, for those who’ve experienced them in the past, has always been the judgments we make of our colleagues’ daily lives, based on the glimpses we get into their personal spaces. Today, those glimpses are an intimacy the pandemic has forced us to share. We’ve all become aware that our living rooms and bedrooms might betray too much — and that the people we’re chatting with might be searching our surroundings for secrets. A custom Zoom background protects us from that unwitting reveal and shifts the focus to the background of our choice, especially if it’s particularly eye-catching, clever, or witty. Zoom backgrounds help us stay connected to the world and each other, while allowing us to hide a bit of whatever anxiety might accompany video chatting from home. We wrest control of the exposure we fear, making it into something sharp, edgy, memetic — something we can, in turn, judge others for.)

III.

The famous dad whirled in the background.

He was a small part of the pantomime.

IV.

At what point are Zoom backgrounds accepted as a part of the new normal, incorporating themselves into our daily lives the way we incorporate memes, reaction GIFs, hashtags, emoji, and countless other staples of modern digital life? Is the Zoom boom temporary? Will people eventually return to an existence that is much less reliant on Zoom chats, Netflix parties, Discord nights, and every other technology-infused form of society that’s keeping so many going right now?

At what point does a Zoom background cease to be a Zoom background and become a sign of how well you’re able to remain social during a crisis? If you turn off your background — or, worse, your camera — to leave your window perpetually dark, are you in denial? If your Zoom background is no background at all but your actual, real-life surroundings, does that still count as an aesthetic choice? Or is it a refusal to engage with the zeitgeist? Is no Zoom background a sign of angst, a sign of edginess, or a sign of nothing at all?

“Turn on your camera,” my friend said, when she called me the other night for a spontaneous Zoom chat.

“I’m shy,” I responded, thankful that the bags under my eyes, my unmade bed, the visible signs of my inability to adjust to quarantine, adjust to adulthood, adjust to being human, were safely masked now and forever behind the protective surface of that black background.

“Boo,” she said. She didn’t hang up right away, but she didn’t call back, either.

An eerie Zoom background from the set of Supernatural, designed by Jerry Wanek.
The CW / Valarie Sprague

V.

I do not know which to prefer,

The beauty of inflections

Or the beauty of innuendoes,

The Zoom romance beckoning

Or just after.

(The Hallmark Channel’s newly assembled library of Zoom backgrounds contains 11 categories, including “Gazebos,” “Pets,” and “Love and Romance.” It also provides special backgrounds for fans of the hit Hallmark shows When Calls the Heart, The Good Witch, and Chesapeake Shores. Twitter informs me these fans are called, respectively, Hearties, Goodies, and Chessies. Among the many other organizations and companies getting in on the Zoom background wallpaper craze are the Monterey Bay Aquarium, Pixar, and the Yorkshire Tea company.)

Zoom background from the special “Gazebos” section of the Hallmark Channel’s Zoom background library.
Hallmark

VI.

Vectors filled the laptop window

With barbaric aesthetics.

The laser rays of drama

Crossed it, to and fro.

The mood

Traced in the Zoom

An indecipherable cause.

VII.

O thin men of Haddam,

Why do you imagine an escape from quarantine?

Do you not see how the Zoom background

Already offers you

A virtual escape?

(In terms of escapist stories about people who are trapped in the same place for weeks, dodging their reality via the medium of virtual society, Netflix’s recent reality competition The Circle has proven eerily prescient. So, too, has the show’s ultimate moral — at least in the US version, in which contestants tend to instinctively vote for the versions of each other they feel are most authentic. Escapism is fine, but The Circle seems to suggest that what we really want is to escape into an approximation of reality — a version of ourselves that’s nicer, cleaner, and neater than what quarantine has left us with.

If early YouTube-era video backgrounds embraced their unglamorous standards, and the rise of social media subsequently engrained in many of us a constant sense of FOMO and Instagram envy over the pressure to live cool, glamorous, camera-ready lives, our current circumstances leave many of us longing for something in between. Zoom backgrounds allow us to acknowledge the outside world, desperately sought. Yet we also take control of this version of reality, even if it’s a self-aware, sanitized one.)

VIII.

I know noble accents

And lucid, inescapable rhythms;

But I know, too,

That the Zoom background is involved

In aiding my ability to freely socialize, work, and learn remotely, all while shielding me from displays of socioeconomic privilege and the ramifications of forced authenticity.

(“I started drawing backgrounds for Zoom mostly because I felt pretty helpless,” artist Pam Wishbow told me when I emailed her about her fabulous Zoom background art. “I hope they brighten people’s days a little bit, maybe make them feel a little more together and professional in a space that is normally not where work happens. I didn’t think too long and hard before making them, but after seeing some points brought up about eLearning and issues about working at home where showing their homes may not be desirable, I also hope they can help with that.”)

IX.

When the Zoom background went dark,

It marked the edge

Of one of many circles.

X.

My friend from Norfolk, Virginia, invited me to attend her “soft” Zoom birthday party, two hours before the start time. “Bring yourself at your fluffiest, coziest, cutest, or sparkliest!” the invitation urged. Because this pandemic has robbed me of a regular sleep schedule, I was napping and woke up about 20 minutes into the event.

I thought about how, when I moved to Virginia in my late 20s, I’d been cowed by her ability to make friends with complete strangers, even though this skill made me feel welcome more times than I could count. I thought about how when I moved away again, she said, “It’s like you just took a three-year vacation — like you were never really here.”

I thought about joining in. But without a fluffy, cozy, cute, or sparkly Zoom background — without anything but myself — I felt awkward; a latecomer showing up without a gift, leaving before I was ever really there.

(She had a great time. “It was honestly better than a real party, because people could duck out whenever,” she told me later. “No getting cornered by the door by someone’s family member you don’t know. And no clean up!”)

XI.

He flew over Minneapolis

In an aluminum cage.

Once, a fear pierced him,

In that he foresaw

The endless vista before him

Hopelessly compressed into a Zoom background.

XII.

The router is connected.

The Zoom backgrounds must be trending.

(Of course, there’s the concern that even discussing the aesthetics of Zoom backgrounds plays into the consumerism that’s caused Zoom stock to nearly double over the last three months, even as other companies’ stocks plummet. It’s one thing to talk about memes and viral online behavior. But most memes don’t benefit a specific platform the way Zoom backgrounds do.

To some degree, a Zoom background is just a more sophisticated return to customized virtual wallpapers and personalized internet chats. It’s your login screen, or your old-school AIM “away” status, updated for 2020 and broadcasted to everyone who might be looking. But the classic wallpaper wouldn’t have gotten this new spin were it not for Zoom itself, the platform of the moment. Somehow, Zoom has morphed from a stuffy business-centric conferencing client into a ubiquitous social experience. The coronavirus pandemic has transformed Zoom’s role in the world, just as our relationship to so many other internet apps and platforms has also been transformed. Many of us suddenly need Zoom, FaceTime, Skype, Discord, and a host of other platforms that were merely boring work tools or fun entertainment opportunities a month ago.

In this context, the Zoom background isn’t just wallpaper. It’s helping mediate our identities and our relationship to our own real, lived-in spaces, in a moment when everything is suddenly limited to very close quarters. It’s allowing us to choose images that reflect what we want to see of the world, what we want to see of our own lives, or what we want other people to see of ourselves.

Will that last once the pandemic ends?

Will it even matter, once we can finally go outside?)

XIII.

It was evening all afternoon.

We were indoors

And we were going to remain indoors.

The Zoom background sat

On the laptop desktop,

Or wherever people stash

Their images of real life

Nowadays.

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