Last month, as millions of Americans began to work remotely because of the coronavirus pandemic, journalists Kara Swisher and Jessica Lessin hosted a Zoom event focused on the challenges women tech founders face. The event did not go as expected: within 15 minutes, the hosts were forced to end the encounter abruptly because a participant began broadcasting a pornographic video. This is only one example of a growing trend of "Zoombombing," using Zoom’s screen-sharing feature to project graphic or racist content to unwitting participants.
Schools and universities hastily trained their faculty to use Zoom for synchronous learning, and the company's stock price skyrocketed. Established in 2011 as a video conferencing platform for global businesses, Zoom has been recast as a heaven-sent solution for quarantine anxiety and an economy threatening to collapse. By making possible everything from yoga classes to psychotherapy sessions, Zoom promises much more than seamless video; it promises a sense of normalcy, routine, and connection during a crisis characterized by limited mobility.
“Zoomtopia,” to use company parlance, ignores the precarity of the digital infrastructure, the ubiquity of internet trolls, and the unexpected disruptions that pop into the frame in the form of pets, children, and partners. The company's ability to provide seamless video is now doubtful as an exponential influx of users encounter buffering issues, frozen screens, and any other digital noise once mocked by Zoom in its commercial from 2015 (which, tellingly, features a conference meeting of four suited executives and one woman, all of whom are white). Worse, the privacy breaches of the product made Zoombombing ever more tempting as it spreads into public events and academic seminars. Many new users are unaware of these risks, failing to protect themselves by changing the default settings.
The enthusiastic embrace of Zoom by both the media and educational institutions have served to mask its downsides. However, the speed in which this platform turns loved ones into potential trolls, or invites strangers to project porn into our makeshift home offices, should be studied as part of an emerging "corona-capitalism". We’ve been promised a Zoomtopia of renewed connectivity; insetad, we're facing a Zoombie apocalypse in which we might control the frame — but we don't direct the movie.