Can virtual meetings really make up for lock-down’s lack of physical contact?


Ready for your close-up, Zoombies? Image: Wikipedia Commons

I took part in three Zoom calls at the weekend. The first on Friday night was with good friends, calling with birthday wishes. The second and third, on Saturday, were with disparate groups of family members, similarly reaching out across the lock-down with loving virtual hugs and kisses.

The Friday night call ran for three hours. The others lasted roughly an hour each.

After all that Zooming in, I sat down to read Dr Gianpiero Petriglieri’s piece in the Financial Times on a phenomenon he calls “the rise of the Zoombies”.

Petriglieri is a medical doctor and associate professor of organisational behaviour at Insead, one of the world’s leading graduate business schools. He sees Zoom meetings as digital windows to “defied desire”. Where once they enhanced our reach, he writes, now they “keep showing us the people we have lost”.

“Zoom meetings are seances of sorts — troubled attempts to re-establish a connection with somebody we have lost and still care about.”

Dr Gianpiero Petriglieri

Petriglieri quotes Bill Cornell, a Pittsburgh psychotherapist: “On a video call, the absence is so palpable.” Dr Petriglieri diagnoses Zoom meetings as “seances of sorts — troubled attempts to re-establish a connection with somebody we have lost and still care about”.

Zoom meetings, he says, are making Zoombies of us all and “like fictional zombies, we Zoombies are relentless yet not fully human. Unlike them, we have a heavy heart”

Enforced intimacy

It seems to me the good doctor is being overly gloomy about the enforced virtual intimacy of a video call. It’s true video calls remind us of those we can’t physically reach. A Zoom meeting undoubtedly makes for more exhaustion — dodgy connections, frozen screens, hard-to-read faces — than if we’re jammed round the same cafe table or in someone’s living room.

Video calls can’t compare with physical interaction — glorious moments such as cracking up together at the same joke, nudging the person sitting next to you, taking someone’s hand, enfolding a loved one in a big hug. To that extent, it’s hard to fault Dr Petriglieri on one aspect of his diagnosis — there’s an exquisite grief when people you love are far away and strategically out of reach.

But surely the anguish of maintaining physical distance is relieved by knowing we’re all still connected in some way? Surely it helps to know we’re all thinking about each other and, in some way, are in the same mental and emotional space at the same time?

The rise of the Zoombies should be celebrated, not mourned. What it really means is we care enough to stay connected — however it’s managed, however imperfect the experience of touching across the ether.

The virtual finger brushes over a face; it cannot wipe away a tear, nor smooth the furrowed forehead. But one feels the intention. For now, it’s all we have.

Originally published at