Digital culture in the age of COVID-19: Love at first Zoom
Ever since the U-M student body received President Schlissel’s email detailing the effects of COVID-19 on the winter semester, we’ve immersed ourselves in a digital world. Rapidly evolving updates concerning student housing and remote learning meant that checking our email became an hourly necessity. And while self-quarantining, platforms like Zoom, TikTok and Instagram Live have lended us the ability to stay digitally connected while socially distanced. To engage with digital culture is to engage with community culture, and vice versa.
I sat in our firewood-scented Wisconsin cabin and stared at a Zoom video conference call meant to resemble my friend Stephany’s 19th birthday party. College friends, childhood friends, roommates and classmates were fit awkwardly together like puzzle pieces on my computer screen, patiently awaiting the birthday girl’s arrival. We made conversation and exchanged niceties like business colleagues might do, offering a “what’s everyone been up to?” when the silence grew to be particularly uncomfortable. Finally, Stephany’s sweet face entered the Zoom call and we launched into a timidly performed rendition of “Happy Birthday,” single voices freezing here and there as Zoom’s lag emphasized the inherently awkward nature of the festivity.
Like what many others in Generation Z, more recently labeled as “Generation Zoom,” have experienced, Steph’s birthday party was the umpteenth Zoom event I had attended since first submitting to self-quarantine in mid-March. Virtual cast reunions, get-togethers and club meetings meant that Zoom has become my new and sole place for social gathering. With other Gen Zers frequenting the platform to participate in religious services, movie viewings, club parties and even drinking games, college students have fully immersed themselves in this new form of digital socialization.
Seemingly overnight, self-proclaimed “quaranteens” traded in sweaty bar crawls and packed house parties for Zoom links and Facebook events. Throughout the month of March, a new genre of Zoom-centered Facebook groups including one called “Zoom Hangouts for Self Quranteens” introduced such events like “4/20 on ZOOM” and “Zoom Bingo” to those searching for connection while quarantined. One Facebook event called “How many ppl can we get in a zoom call in a week” appealed to those lonely, socially starved Gen Zers searching for a place to meet new people, play drinking games and commiserate over COVID-19.
But on March 25, this desperate pursuit of human connection proved to extend beyond Zoom Bingo nights and virtual parties when students flocked to an online dating website called thezoomuniversity.com to find love. Co-founded by USC graduates Leor Massachi and Daniel Newman, the initial idea behind the website was to organize video double dates to combat the “...unprecedented levels of loneliness” Newman and Massachi knew college students were experiencing during quarantine. After going viral on TikTok, the website attracted tens of thousands of users hailing from colleges all over the country. Soon, the website servers crashed and Massachi and Newman scrambled to meet the romantic needs of thousands of quarantined students.
The duo expanded to a team of five and immediately began developing the “zoom university” mobile app. Because they were met with such high demand following their viral TikTok content, they set out to develop a barebones version of the app that would generate Zoom double dates for students using codes posted nightly on their Instagram story.
In an email interview with The Michigan Daily, Newman expressed that they heavily relied on user feedback from students their age to perfect the app. As a 22-year-old founder and former college student, Newman wrote that he “(knows) what students want and don’t want; what they like and don’t like,” and entering the digital dating world of Gen Z was the way to truly cater to these quaranteens’ social desires.
On April 30, the Zoom University mobile app went live and has been setting up thousands of quarantined college students since, with Pennsylvania State University and Arizona State University claiming the top spots on the college leaderboard of active users. The app’s development team even enabled “...high school students to use Zoom University and match with each other,” Newman wrote.
The app has received a considerable number of reviews criticizing it for being glitchy and having an excessively long waitlist given the disproportionate number of women versus men users. However, in his email Newman assured me that they “hear incredible stories every day (from the users).” One that struck him was “a group of two college girls who had an unreal connection to the guys they matched with and are planning a 14 hour road trip to go visit them.”
Zoom University as an evolving application serves as a true testament to the power of collaborative digital efforts between Gen Zers. Newman and the rest of his team are flooded daily with highly critical reviews urging the young developers to “...get (it) together in an organized way.” Currently, they are working tirelessly to respond to this user feedback and build additional features like the ability to chat with other users and the ability to re-match.
Newman and the rest of the Zoom University team are part of a generation once condemned for being “hyper-connected” to their screens. But, what was once a dangerous and unhealthy connection to technology has allowed these young persons to pursue incredible social progress through digital connection. While COVID-19 has left us confined to our homes and hungry for the anonymous feeling of being packed in a party with strangers, Gen Zers have proved able to adapt and connect through the way we know best: our screens.
During this pandemic, physical celebration has halted. Large group gatherings are discouraged. But thanks to Generation Zoom, the essence of gathering, whether that be laughter with friends, a “Happy Birthday” sung by loved ones or the thrill of meeting a stranger on a date, has and always will remain true.
You can find “zoom university” on the app store or on Instagram @thezoomuniversity