Another Reason Zoom Is So Draining

18 August 2020

Months into our lockdowns, many of us are becoming intimately familiar with Zoom fatigue. This is the particular dead-eyed, mind-numbing exhaustion I feel at the end of pretty much every video meeting I’ve ever attended. 


Recently the Internet has exploded with reasons Zoom exhausts you more than in-person interaction. For example: 



I’m here to add another reason Zoom is so draining—one which I think is much more important than any of the above. Zoom is missing yet another fundamental piece of social interaction. That missing piece is joint attention: knowingly co-attending to something with someone else. 


Joint attention is a foundation of early childhood social learning. When babies attend to the same things as their caretakers, they start to understand other people better—what they want, what they think, what they’re doing. Joint attention helps a lot when you’re a baby learning a language: when someone says a word, you can attend to whatever they’re attending to in order to figure out what that word means. As a result, babies that jointly attend learn their languages faster. Lack of joint attention makes social and language learning very difficult. Difficulties initiating joint attention are consistently observed in children with autism spectrum disorder.


Joint attention scaffolds communication and cooperation through adulthood as well. Newer studies in cognitive science are starting to describe the ways joint attention helps us process and retain information. Observations of joint agency—e.g. building a Lego model together—highlight how crucial joint attention is. In shared projects, we regularly point to things, asking others to attend to what we’re attending to. It keeps us in sync. Joint attention literally makes it possible for humans to do things together, rather than merely doing similar things in parallel.


Most in-person meetings are models of joint attention. In a meeting, the jointly attended thing could be a PowerPoint presentation, a document, or a whiteboard. In a museum it might be a sculpture; in a lab, it might be a beaker playing host to an interesting chemical interaction. 


The problem with Zoom is that it obliterates crucial cues to joint attention. The problem is not that you and your Zoom mates cannot, in fact, both attend to the same thing; plenty of Zoom meetings involve multiple bleary-eyed hermits paying effortful attention to the same screen-shared slides. Instead, the problem is that you cannot tell if others are really paying attention to the same thing that you are paying attention to. And this is a crucial aspect of joint attention: knowing that you are not alone in your attending to this thing. Joint attention is mutual in a way that is absolutely obvious to all those attenders involved. (Just exactly how to describe this mutualness is a matter of considerable philosophical debate.)


Why can’t you know what people are paying attention to over Zoom? Because paying thoughtful close attention and completely ignoring the Zoom window look practically identical to your Zoom mates. Whether you’re reading the class slides or watching The Office on Netflix for the 6th time, you will be gazing at the same part of the screen. Usually, in face-to-face interaction, direction of gaze is a really important indicator of human attention. But on Zoom, your direction of gaze just doesn’t indicate much about your attention at all. It might indicate attention towards the computer screen, but—as any classroom instructor can now tell you—that means very little about your attention paid to what’s actually going on in Zoom.


The near-impossibility of joint attention in Zoom is most obvious when you try to jointly attend to another person over Zoom. Because you and your Zoom mates don’t all share a physical space—you’re all confined to separate virtual boxes, arrayed differently across each of your physical screens—you cannot point to someone, look at them, or even orient your body towards that person, in any way that can indicate to a third Zoom mate that you are attending to that person in particular. 


This means that watching, listening, and attending more generally become private and individual matters over Zoom, instead of the shared activities they become in person. In person, someone gazing towards something automatically pulls your attention towards it. But over Zoom, other people’s gazes simply do not motivate you to pay attention to whatever they are actually attending to. You have to exert private effort of your own to stay on track, throughout the hours you spend on Zoom. You have to work harder, marshalling all your own resources not to float away into a daydream.


It is easy to forget, when we spend a lot of time around others, how difficult sustained private attention really is. This is part of the excellent and worthwhile challenge of mindfulness meditation, which I discussed on Part 2 of the Comforting Conversations episode. It’s worth practicing this difficult skill, since you won’t have the ready help of others’ attention to shape your own while you’re sitting through all those exhausting Zoom sessions.


Image by Alexandra_Koch from Pixabay