For a brief moment in March, it looked as though calendars might be cleared to slow the coronavirus outbreak. But as quickly as events were canceled, replacements popped up: virtual happy hours, networking sessions, DJ sets, book clubs, meditation groups. Bedroom walls would be broadcast to moms and managers alike. Banquet halls and bars would be remade in the shape of the Zoom grid. Any event, it seemed, could be broken down to its most easily streamable parts.
But the Zoomification of everything could not keep life’s narrative threads from coming undone. For those of us privileged to be healthy and stuck at home, the days felt shapeless, the weeks piled up. And now a question looms: Years from now, what will we actually remember from these life events? Stripped of the smells and sounds and textures of the now-forbidden spaces we used to inhabit, life in lockdown might look in retrospect like a plotless TV show, where we are both a bad actor and a bored audience. It’s the details that imbue memories with specificity and significance — and without them, despite our virtual efforts, our big moments of 2020 may end up a blur.
Part of the problem is we process events in the in-between spaces: in car-ride debriefings with friends after a party or while staring out the window on the train back from work. “Those transitions are important for us to rehearse what happened to make meaning out of it,” says Benjamin Storm, a psychology professor who studies memory at University of California at Santa Cruz.
But when clicking from one event to another, “Now, it’s like it’s over, bam and then we move on to the next thing,” Storm says. “We may not consolidate the memories and make meaning of the events in the same way and we may not remember them as well.”
This might explain why Aniela Valtierra, 35, a San Francisco-based event planner, has been forgetting everything: conversations she had, what TV show she watched yesterday and even simple things like closing the refrigerator door. “Everything is so warpy” she says, “There is no sense of separation between being at an office, getting in a car, going into your room.”
Our minds segment reality based on changes in our environment: like when you pass through a doorway, or a new person enters a room. Psychologists call them “event boundaries.” “Some recent research has shown if you have more event boundaries, that helps break up your experience and you remember better,” says Gabriel Radvansky, a psychology professor at the University of Notre Dame who first wrote about this “doorway effect.” For many, in a pared-down world made of a computer screen, the grocery store and a few rooms at home, the opportunities for these boundaries are limited.
“The problem with the Zoom windows is that they all look alike, so you’ve got all these situations that look very similar and you start to get confused,” he adds. “We use spatial location to help code memories, and if you have a lot of things happening in the same place, you get a lot of interference and memory is worse.”
Leslie Feinzaig, 41, who took her Seattle-based company Female Founders Alliance remote in March, jokes that she has made her life into one giant video call. Details of her daughter’s Zoom birthday party stand out in her memory, but the rest of quarantine feels like “one big haze.” “You know how if a sports season is cut short, a player’s averages get an asterisk next to them? I feel like our lives are getting an asterisk, ” she says.
Even if there is some visual variation in your events — in, say, the variety of artwork in your friends’ backgrounds — it’s flattened by a dearth of information elsewhere.
If you meet a friend at a restaurant, there are all sorts of sensations that come with it, “the lights and the people passing by and the food and the flavors and the smells all of that,” Valtierra says, “whereas on Zoom, you might be sitting in a chair and your back is in pain because you’ve been sitting at it all day for work.”
Distractions that pull us out of the moment can also be destructive to memory. At physical gatherings, we endure awkward lulls and boring digressions. But online, even the most well-meaning Zoom guest can’t help but be tempted by the emails popping up and Twitter feuds waiting in another window — not to mention fixated on the messy interiors and disastrous quarantine hair depicted in our own video feeds.
It could be that we might remember less from a virtual event because what happens is simply less interesting. Steve Whittaker, a professor of human-computer interaction at UC Santa Cruz, has found that video calls make brainstorming and bantering more difficult. The time lag leads people to tell fewer jokes than when in person, he notices, and even gatherings with close friends or family can feel a little too “task-oriented.”
Valtierra, who has attended numerous galas online, has noticed the etiquette of staying on mute for work spills over into social time. “It’s almost too coordinated, too controlled,” she says.
Shakeelah Sutton, a D.C.-based yoga instructor, won’t forget being forced to celebrate her 30th birthday while sitting in her living room, but the memories of the virtual happy hour she hosted are lackluster. She sent out a message inviting everyone to grab a drink before they signed on. No one had drinks. And because some people in the group didn’t know each other, she felt pressure to create engaging conversation out of thin air. “I wanted everyone to have a good time, but we were all just kind of sitting there looking at each other,” she recalls.
Many of life’s most memorable experiences come from the chance encounters and unexpected moments that conference calls minimize. Perhaps this is why the most salient memories from virtual events are of the technology not doing what it’s supposed to do.
When Feinzaig looks back on her daughter’s 1st birthday party on Zoom, she remembers how the lag made it impossible to sing happy birthday in sync. Mica Annis, a 2020 graduate of American University, recalls rewinding her virtual graduation live stream because the slides were flicking by so fast that she missed her name. Yusuf Sarfati, a professor at Illinois State University, went to a bar mitzvah on Zoom and remembers his parents spending the whole call waving. They had it on speaker mode, where the person talking shows up in a large window, and thought each one was speaking directly to them.
We might’ve thought that at the very least, socializing from home would limit embarrassing mishaps. No more stairs to trip on or white shirts to catch red wine. But mishaps are unavoidable, and online, they could be the only thing that makes a party memorable.