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How boomers got so good at Zoom

What my mother’s Zooms taught me about friendship.

An open laptop sitting on a lawn and displaying a Zoom call with 20 participants.
A family watches a church Zoom meeting in Massachusetts.
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Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

Every day, my mom prays the rosary twice — once in the morning at 8:30 with her local church and again in the afternoon around 1:30. I say “around” because the second session depends on what time her cousins sign in to Zoom and what time they actually get the Apostles’ Creed started.

“We do our little tsismis before and a little tsismis after,” Liza, one of her cousins, told me, explaining the Zoom process. Tsismis is a Tagalog word for gossip. Liza was much more forthright than my mother about the dal dal (Tagalog has a lot of words for gossip), explaining to me that there was a really valuable social aspect to their daily Zooms.

“We share pictures of what we ate, the food we cook, the K-dramas we’re watching, those kinds of things. It’s definitely a spiritual event, but it is also a social event,” she added.

Besides learning that my mom keeps her friends’ secrets very well, it’s clear from speaking with her and Liza that these meetings are moments of joy — moments that only began when the pandemic shut down their in-person lives last March.

In the before times, Liza and my mom were close, but they didn’t talk every day the way they do now. They’d call each other once a week or twice a month and catch up. They’d pray, but separately, mostly in-person at their churches — my family lives in Southern California while Liza’s lives farther north.

Liza isn’t my mom’s only Zoom friend.

My mom started regularly checking in with friends from high school, college, and medical school the next month. “We probably see each other in Zoom every month,” she says. “Before, we’d maybe only see each other when somebody had a birthday.”

Over the past winter, she and her friends have participated in reunions, celebrated birthdays, and, sadly, even organized and attended funerals and memorials for some of their own, all over Zoom. They’ve joined the “unprecedented number of free participants” that the company says it has added in recent months, though the company hasn’t specified in detail just how many millions of people use the app.

Tom Kamber, the executive director of Senior Planet and OATS, told me this is what he’s been seeing. OATS stands for Older Adults Technology Services, a national nonprofit organization aimed at training older people how to use technology like Zoom. “I think we had something like 48,000 unique individuals,” he said, referring to the number of people signing up for classes during the pandemic.

“It’s an order of magnitude higher than we were doing before. It’s really a big deal,” he told me. “What’s going on with Zoom and what your mother is doing is such a perfect example of how the pandemic has forced a lot of people into the learning pipeline in a more emphatic and more urgent way.”

While shutting down Americans’ in-person social lives, the pandemic has created a new kind of socializing — or rather, compelled many Americans to create new kinds for themselves. For anyone who grew up with social media, the adjustment has been uncomfortable but maybe a little more seamless. Apps like Zoom and Slack started primarily as office tools before turning into social ones.

For people who grew up budgeting pricey long-distance calls and sending photographs through snail mail, however, the new paradigm has meant not just learning how to Zoom but learning a whole new way and pace of friendship. WhatsApp and Viber as well as FaceTime had already changed that, no doubt.

But in the pandemic, the lack of casual, in-person socializing — and of the “too busy” excuse — created opportunities for people like my mom to reconnect with old acquaintances, see her existing friends face to face more, recreate dashed reunions, and maybe even share some gossip with cousins.

And I’m very happy for her.

Loving someone long distance used to be expensive

Cartoonist George du Maurier satirized how Alexander Graham Bell’s phone could be used by courting couples in 1880.
Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group/Getty Images

My parents are immigrants who moved to the US from the Philippines after they got married in the ’80s. They didn’t start out making the money they eventually would when they got older. And because phone calls back home were so expensive, they occupied a large chunk of their budget. They allotted $300 a month, mainly for Sunday phone calls once a week to both sets of my grandparents. Sunday nights were the cheapest time to call, she says, around $1.25 per minute.

Calling friends, some of whom moved to the US at the same time as them, was also expensive and even rarer.

“That’s how you expressed love for people far away,” my mom told me. “You’d call them despite the expenses. And the only time we’d physically get to see each other was when someone would come to visit.”

Liza, and I’m sure anyone who spent money on long-distance calls in the ’80s, had the same dilemma. She and my mom would call and chat, but not regularly.

“It was lonely, because we were in, you know, a different world. This wasn’t the world that we grew up in,” she told me. “Connecting with family back home was something we’d look forward to. I would call my parents but limit it to a certain number of minutes. Otherwise, it’d be too expensive.” Because of the high price, she says, “I only called my mom. I didn’t call many classmates. I didn’t call friends.”

Instead of calling, she would write letters and cards to her friends and wait up to two weeks for them to arrive. Then she’d wait for people to write back. When Liza eventually had children, she’d send pictures of them back home so that all her relatives could see them. By the time her relatives would receive them, the baby could look very different. Now Liza and my mother have grandchildren of their own whose photos are texted or uploaded to shared albums almost immediately.

My friend John is 10 or so years younger than Liza and my mother, but he had his own tricks to deal with expenses in the ’80s and ’90s. He lived in San Francisco and then New York, while his mother lived in Hawaii. When he arrived back home after a trip to see her, he’d call collect and that would be his signal for her to stop worrying. She’d reject the call to avoid charges.

Calling collect was part of his coming of age.

“I do remember at one point when I got to New York in 1990 or 1991, that I felt more like an adult. And me and my brother felt like we had our shit together. I’d just call direct,” he told me. “And my mom was like, ‘Oh, you don’t need to call me collect now?’

Even when cellular phones came into existence, it was still touch and go.

“I got in big trouble a few times with, like, $1,000 cellphone bills,” John told me. “And you’re just like, ‘Holy shit.’ Like, ‘What am I going to do?’”

The price of long-distance calls and lack of technology meant you could go weeks without talking to someone across the country. It made people more deliberate with communication.

Granted, technology like FaceTime and texting, and gimmicks like free nights and weekend cellphone plans, eventually made getting in touch with someone you loved pretty cheap. Text messaging in particular grew in popularity, perhaps at the expense of calls. In 2014, Gallup found that texting and emailing were the “most frequently used forms of non-personal communication” among Americans. And report after report has found that more Americans prefer texting over calling, with younger people leading the way.

Shira Gabriel, a professor of psychology at the University of Buffalo, said that prior to the pandemic, our customs around calling and connecting with people were pretty set. Gabriel studies human connections and the importance of social bonds, and she and her colleagues have been researching how people have adapted in forming social connections in the past year.

She noted that before the pandemic, we’d call people — our family members, maybe our very best friends — who we were used to calling, but we didn’t really branch out. And while we’ve always had the capability to get in contact with our old high school friends or reconnect with college classmates, and perhaps even did so through Facebook and social media, it wasn’t customary to just give them a call.

“The pandemic gave us a paradigm shift in terms of the way we communicate,” she said.

Gabriel told me that the underlying theory to her research is that human beings are social animals and that these social connections make us feel alive and help us survive. When our in-person social connections were severed by the pandemic, many of us had to consider how to restore these social bonds and rethink the way we communicate. Zoom went from an office tool to a social platform.

“When you don’t think of Zoom as a real option for connecting, then you just sort of accept the fact that you’re not going to talk to your camp friends, your high school friends, or, you know, your friends from your old city very often. When all of a sudden that becomes the norm, you realize, like, wow. I can’t tell you how many conversations I’ve had with old friends where we’ve been like, Why weren’t we doing this?’”

While Zoom isn’t going to replicate an in-person, face-to-face interaction, it provided something that texts, social media DMs, and phone calls could not: a way to literally see your friends and family.

Zooms are what we do when everyone we know has nothing else to do

Family members on a Zoom Thanksgiving.
Octavio Jones/Getty Images

When the pandemic shut down nightlife, restaurants, gyms, and movie theaters, it shut down a lot of social avenues for Americans. But socializing wasn’t impossible. People, as Gabriel pointed out, just needed to think differently about the tools they already had. The pandemic forced the issue. And it put older and younger people on the same playing field, trying to connect.

Both John and cousin Liza have adopted weekly Zooms with their families. John’s weeklies allowed him to reconnect with his cousin Valerie. The two always liked each other, but didn’t talk that often, but the family Zooms allowed them to reignite a friendship. John moved back to Hawaii this past year and drove his car from New York to Los Angeles, where it would get shipped to Oahu. On the way, he made it a point to stop and see Val in Denver. “It wasn’t even a question for me. Like, I’m going to stop through and see Val. I didn’t stop to see anyone else.”

The new weekly family Zooms also made it easier for Liza to get her family together to celebrate her late mother’s birthday and attend a mass together over Zoom. Still, she said she knows a few of her friends — extroverts especially — who are struggling, and knows that there might be a tech learning curve for some people.

Kamber echoed this sentiment. He mentioned that one of the biggest hurdles is and has been connectivity. It’s not that older people don’t want to learn about new tech like Zoom, it’s that not all of them have access to broadband and necessary tools. The pandemic lit a spotlight on that, and on how resilient older people can be.

“Every time there’s a kind of shock to the system, and every time there’s an event that requires people to reformulate, rethink, rethink how they’re interacting with older people, people are always all surprised. Older people were always capable of doing this stuff, it just doesn’t come to the forefront,” he told me.

As Kamber explained, older people may have been more prepared for this social shutdown than the rest of the population. Because seniors may be more isolated than the general population — they, for example, might not be going to happy hours, working in an office, or having late nights out with friends — socializing and making time for social connections are some of the skills they’ve sharpened.

“Seniors already know how to handle being indoors. They’re experts at shaping their daily schedules to make sure that they’re staying active and being intentional about building social contacts with people, because if they don’t build them intentionally, in many cases, their networks begin to attenuate,” he told me. “And the pandemic has created this sort of enforced requirement for people to be more intentional about how to use technology, how to interact with each other.”

Kamber believes it isn’t difficult to see how older people could teach their younger relatives about coming together in a setting that isn’t how we’d socialize normally.

My mother started with the rosary gossip in March but slowly progressed to things like “happy hours” (drinking optional), casual hangouts, and video chatting with her kids on holidays. On Christmas, we watched my nephews open their presents over Zoom.

She also has multiple Zoom backgrounds — festive virtual backdrops that you can apply to your calls — and knows most of the tricks. This past month, my mom celebrated her 50th high school reunion. She got up at 2 am for the ceremony (the Philippines is around 16 hours ahead of California time).

But there have also been some unpleasant get-togethers, as my mom and dad have both had friends and classmates die during the pandemic. They’ve attended funeral Zooms. And as morbid as that can seem — holding someone’s memorial ceremony over an app — she is thankful for them.

“When my dad died [in 2005], remember? We didn’t get to see each other, he just said goodbye to you over the phone,” she told me. “We didn’t even have FaceTime.”

My mom had flown back to the Philippines to be with him as his health was fading, but because it was so sudden, taking her four children — some of whom were still in high school and college — with her in time for the funeral wasn’t a possibility. My dad flew back for the funeral, but I think I didn’t really realize how lonely fielding phone call after phone call from her friends must have been for my mom. If that happened now, the tech would have made it different, maybe better.

“Do you think you’re less lonely now?” I asked her, not just about the funerals, but about how the pandemic has given her a chance that maybe wasn’t there before to really connect with her friends.

“I think so,” she told me. “Maybe it’s different because I don’t work now and have more time to Zoom and fill in the times where I feel like I don’t have much to do. I do feel closer with my friends, but the drawback is you don’t get to visit them.”

My mom plans on Zooming even when the social distancing measures end. And I’ll try my best to find time on her schedule for one for us.

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