The Rise of Déjà Zoom

Virtual friendships are transitioning from grainy video into real life, and creating a pandemic-induced feeling akin to déjà vu.

Illustration of Zoom screens with a person's eye
The Atlantic

If 2020 was a year of isolation, 2021 has been a year of reunions. Hugging and sharing meals with loved ones you haven’t seen for months is great. But seeing someone in the flesh can feel weird if you previously knew them only from virtual meetings and videochats. Meeting Zoom friends in real life reveals how much is omitted when your computer’s graphics card renders someone: their height, whether they sustain or avoid eye contact, what they look like outside their kitchen. Uncanny vibes abound. Seeing our virtual friends in person produces something like a pandemic-induced déjà vu. Call it déjà Zoom.

If déjà vu is the feeling of familiarity toward something foreign and jamais vu is the feeling of foreignness toward something familiar, déjà Zoom lies somewhere between the two. “It felt like I was just seeing people again, rather than meeting them,” David Jones, a 35-year-old in Washington, D.C., told me of his first real-life encounters with Zoom friends. Déjà Zoom can be jarring or awkward, calling into question the degree to which we really know the people we met in quarantine. But it’s also a testament to how close we’ve grown to people we’ve never physically met before.

Jones made new friends during the pandemic thanks to his love for theater. When Broadway shut down in the spring of 2020, he decided to reach out to an actor in Phantom of the Opera, his favorite musical, to see if she might offer virtual voice lessons in her newly freed-up schedule. She agreed, and also began teaching group classes, where Jones made several friends, including a woman who invited him to monthly Zooms that she organized for virtual table readings of musicals and films. He’s since traveled to New York and Florida to meet people from his classes and the table reads. In October, he—along with friends from the classes—went to see Phantom of the Opera during its reopening weekend to support his teacher.

In pre-pandemic times, Jones had a handful of friends, but he said he struggled to make new ones. “I don’t have a ton of confidence in myself, and I try to not take up much space in the world,” he said. “Zoom, I think, kind of made everything feel like a level playing field.” He was more comfortable being himself on video calls because there was no obligation to see people again if they didn’t hit it off. During script readings, the group’s shared love of theater, plus the performance element of the Zoom gatherings, created a sense of connection and vulnerability. Since the pandemic started, Jones has met 25 people he initially became friends with over Zoom. A lot of them were shocked by his height (he’s 6 foot 2).

Not all of Jones’s Zoom friendships have lasted. One woman whom he talked with for more than a year stopped speaking with him after they had an awkward in-person meetup. This is common, says Amy Johnson, a communications professor at the University of Oklahoma who studies long-distance friendships. Most people avoid conflict in digital communication because it’s normalized as a face-to-face interaction (think the preference for breaking up with someone in person rather than via text message, or even a phone call). In the absence of conflict, people can idealize their online relationships and fill in any missing information about the other person positively. Meeting in real life, then, can cause us to feel less close if the person doesn’t match our idea of them. This gap in closeness doesn’t need to be treated as a red flag as long as people recommit to getting to know each other on an intimate level, Johnson told me.

Another defamiliarizing aspect of bringing Zoom friendships into the real world is learning other people’s nonverbal habits, which are sometimes conveyed poorly or not at all over video. This lack of cues can cause interruptions or stilted conversation during virtual group meetings, and it can also lead to feelings of unease or surprise when we finally meet in person. (It’s also not normal to look at your own face when getting to know someone.) Interacting with a person on Zoom is like seeing them with one eye, Jeremy Bailenson, a Stanford communications professor, told me. But in person, where we use all of our senses, we can add small yet rich layers of detail to our understanding of who other people are and how we perceive them. Bailenson felt disoriented when he first met a student in his lab after seeing her only on Zoom for months. That feeling soon faded, though. “You just have to put in the time to relearn a new way of being with someone,” he said.

Videochat cannot completely translate nonverbal cues, spatial awareness, or physical touch. Other forms of remote presence offer more promise. This summer, Bailenson taught a class almost entirely in virtual reality; his students wore headsets and interacted with one another as avatars. He sees benefits to having more lifelike ways to communicate virtually even beyond the pandemic, especially when traveling is unnecessary or challenging. But he still loves real, face-to-face meetings with students and friends too.

Meeting even very close friends after long Zoom friendships can be challenging. Raz Bar-Ziv, a researcher at UC Berkeley, met his friend Tal, a scientist living in Germany, for the first time in Israel this summer, after a year of daily Zooming, talking on the phone, and exchanging WhatsApp voice memos. The two had connected through ScienceAbroad, a network of Israeli scholars living around the world, and got to know each other as they planned an online symposium. When they discovered they’d both be in Israel over the summer, they decided to meet. Bar-Ziv told me that it took him a while to comprehend that Tal was real. Here was this person he knew so well, but when she was sitting in front of him, he felt odd, like she was a stranger. Bar-Ziv was even unsure if they should hug, but when they did, it “was like we met many times before. We very quickly behaved like that.”

I also spoke with a group of Zoom friends who initially bonded over their self-described shared identity as Latino comedy writers. They were first brought together by Jorge Thomson, who had invited four others whom he knew from various fellowships and workshops. He was hoping to create a space for Latino comedy writers to network and trade notes on the projects they were working on. When the group started meeting weekly at the start of 2021, it was scattered across the country in New York, California, Illinois, and Florida. Over the summer, the group met for the first time at a park in Los Angeles after being fully vaccinated. “We’re from a culture where the intimacy is organic but immediate,” Annelise Dekker-Hernandez, a member of the group, told me. “You feel like you’re all distantly family, and so we were very comfortable with each other from the jump.”

Learning one another’s comedy styles and life stories through the process of workshopping helped the writers build trust. Thomson told me that their shared identity means he doesn’t have to overexplain his scripts, and he feels comfortable asking questions such as “Is there too much Spanish in the script?” and “How do you feel about this representation of our community?” Henry Alexander Kelly, another member, told me that the group was intrigued to discover how many mutual friends and connections they share. “We literally ran around each other for years,” he said. “Out of nowhere, Zoom meetings for Latinx comedy is what ends up bringing this relationship together.”

Perhaps the most surprising thing about déjà Zoom is that it’s nothing new. People were making friends online pre-pandemic via Reddit and Twitter, and their predecessors MySpace and AOL. Even before the internet, people became acquainted with strangers as pen pals. Focusing on the novelty of online friendships might be missing the point, Joanna Yau, a researcher at the University of Southern California, told me. Core aspects of meaningful relationships are present in both online and offline friendships, but they manifest differently, she explained. Most people want to feel connected to others, validated, like they belong. We use texting, Snapchat, and Zoom differently, but we use them for the same reasons. Even with grainy video and choppy audio, we can still share our hopes, our fears, and our secrets.