After months of living through a pandemic, learning, working and socializing in a virtual setting have made “Zoom fatigue” a familiar feeling. A UC Santa Barbara researcher created a framework connecting how we perceive others in a virtual setting to why this exhaustion happens. 

Nadler first started this research while working in virtual writing centers. Courtesy of Micro Biz Mag

Robby Nadler, the director of UCSB’s Academic, Professional and Technical Graduate Writing Development Program, theorizes that exhaustion comes from the inability to distinguish between person, background and technology when it comes to computer-mediated communication (CMC). The compression of our identity through audiovisual technology is what Nadler calls our “third skin.” 

Nadler first started this research in his years working in virtual writing centers, when it became clear to him that there were big differences in how people behaved in these settings when compared to face-to-face interactions. The pandemic gave him an opportunity to model what he has been thinking about and to theorize beyond the anecdotal. 

To fully understand CMC exhaustion, we have to start off by breaking down what “skins” are. First skin refers to the literal skin on your body. Nadler says, “If you look at a person you actually know quite a bit of information. You can tell someone’s age, just by looking at their body, you can look at them in sense of ability, gender, race, all these components can be in there.” Human and animal appearances code information about how we are perceived and the assumptions we make about others. Theorized by fashion studies, second skins describe how clothing functions as a way of creating identity. 

Your first and second skins are yours; they are connected to you. Space, on the other hand, is not a skin in itself. “Anyone can stand in a house or in the background,” explains Nadler. “Anyone can occupy it.” However, when you’re in a Zoom session, this is where “things get funky with ‘Zoom fatigue.’” 

He uses the example of a movie score to model what’s going on with Zoom. When we watch a movie, we can hear the score of the film, but the characters don’t. We can make that distinction between what is perceived by us as the audience and what is perceived by the characters. 

When we move to Zoom, we suddenly lose the ability to make this distinction. When a leaf blower goes off in the background, to you, it can easily be drowned out as background noise. But to someone interacting with you on Zoom, that leaf blower — background noise— is indistinguishable from who you are.

Nadler says, “So this third skin is this process in which we take on all these other elements that people associate us with, even though we wouldn’t do that in face-to-face interaction.” Using this theory of “third skins,” he provides a framework for understanding why adding audio and visual components to our virtual interactions can lead to exhaustion. There is a confusing amount of stimuli that the perceiver cannot code as relevant or irrelevant. Attempting to engage in computer-mediated interactions thus requires more from us than via face-to-face. 

So how can we move forward in dealing with our “Zoom fatigue?” One recommendation Nadler makes is sectioning off physical spaces that are meant for work and for your personal life or using Zoom only for work. Regarding productivity, he says that turning off your video, at least in a writing center context, has been shown to help for a number of reasons. You stop focusing on your appearance and how you look, lessening the worry of what people think of you and allowing you to pay more attention to the ideas being presented.

Ultimately, Nadler wants us to be transparent with each other when it comes down to how we’re feeling. 

“Communicate these feelings. As someone who teaches on campus with students and works with them and who experiences this exhaustion, too, I think a lot of us, we wink and nod like, ‘Yeah, Zoom fatigue,’” Nadler said. “But we don’t actually say to professors, ‘Hey, is it okay to turn my camera off? I am just really exhausted today Zoom fatigue wise, and it would just really help me if I could concentrate on the lecture.’” 

Whether it be through emoji reactions or the chat function, creating ways to tether each other to the virtual learning environment is crucial in mitigating exhaustion and affirming both teachers and students that they are truly being heard.