The casual group video call format is, at best, a pleasant way to engage with less technically inclined folk. remember those first few weeks where you faced down virtual line ups of most of your social groups, only to follow up with sparse, half baked attempts at re-kindling the same flame?

Zoom Video Communications (ZM - NASDAQ)is currently worth more than the four biggest airlines in the United States – American, Delta, Southwest and United. for a while, a long-liquidated, completely unrelated Chinese company with a more user friendly ticker symbol – Zoom Technologies (ZOOM – OTC) was also peaking in value with every worsening announcement in Q1 by the World Health Organisation.

Zoom itself is a sinister app, installing itself covertly, tracking and reporting on your attention during calls to your administrator, and potentially flagging your video feed for human monitoring without your explicit consent.

in the context of waged work there isn’t much wiggle room*, but why allow it to bleed out into casual settings: pub quizzes, church services, queer club nights (to reference a few early clickbait examples). privacy concerns aside, the video call interface is janky and boring. Zoom is especially bad, but this is no argument to replace it with a similar platform. Jitsi Meet, Google Hangouts or even Houseparty produce similar experiences. what often starts out, well-intentioned, as an experience among friends becomes a chance to stare at anything but static-ish images of each other, while voices dip in and out of compressed comprehensibility.

the insidious creep of conference call software entering our social lives has in turn shaped our new social behaviour. IRL we don’t encounter our friends in big circles, simultaneously focusing on everyone at once while politely speaking one at a time. socialising is dynamic, incoherent and messy. we talk over each other. awkward and inappropriate comments automatically break large groups into a few smaller conversations. the replacement social minutia is far less granular: being/pretending to be frozen, having a bad connection or simply hanging up.

there are better alternatives for ‘being together’ in online spaces. video games have long provided physically isolated people opportunities to cohabit virtual meatspace, Second Life being a prime naughties example not involving sport or violence.

post-covid, these spaces are already being co-opted beyond gaming: school students in the United States have had graduation ceremonies scheduled in Roblox, and art schools are hosting critiques in Animal Crossing. inversely, isolated users have bodged games into Google Docs.

(at the start of lockdown. some friends and i decided to start meeting in Minecraft together, as it has cross-device multiplayer. building and manipulating a space adhering to a fairly advanced, but graspable ruleset was both fun and soothing. soon we found ourselves constructing a replica of a pub we frequent. however, while in the foggy midst of a 40 hour fast i took things too far. i started cross referencing the build with images from TripAdvisor and Street View, ensuring the bar counter used the correct type of wood and trying to build the best representation of a fruit machine. i asked friends how many cubicles there were in the ladies loos and matched the number of chimneys from a satellite picture. admittedly, those few hours were as probably as close as i have come this year to unencumbered creative joy. pre-covid, there would probably be something to be said that in a creative sandbox like Minecraft we resorted to a local, high accuracy skeuomorphism, but that kind of navel gazing seems now better suited to staring at ones thumbnail during a video call.)

video games have been harbingers of online group hangout interfaces, but now corporate interfaces of intimacy that allow for minutia of socialising are now bubbling up through new, and existing platforms. Voiceplace offers group voice chats with proximity, allowing users to hold and move between multiple conversations. Figma, intended as a UX design tool, is being used for gaming and collaborative creative acts.

whether we are ‘Steve’ in Minecraft-meatspace, ‘Anonymous Squirrel’ in a Google Doc, or a sibling of the Brady Bunch in a Zoom call, we are still living by the creative strictures of Platform Capitalism. it’s as if we are only speaking in linear major languages, eschewing slang and subversive actions. to socialise creatively, we shouldn’t just occupy existing spaces but find new routes between them, communicatively bridging those gaps.

on a superficial level, creating these bridges is common to our habits already. a basal form of this would be browsing Twitter while watching something on Netflix, an arbitrary creative short circuiting of pre existing content, which the marketing world calls ‘Second Screening (see entry by Kara Kittel)’. when we start ‘second screening’ with others through communication platforms instead of consuming passive information, this short circuiting becomes Circuit bending. during our time playing Minecraft together, friends and I worked between the game itself, a Discord voice chat and a collaborative Google doc to share information, memes and rumours found on Twitter.

these are acts of collaborative production, not passive consumption. we don’t just occupy platforms, but the internet itself. one’s collaborative, simultaneous Minecraft/Discord/Google Docs shitposting splays out over gaia through deep sea data cables, as we become nodes of creative synthesis, processing and producing streams of social and cultural information together through casual subjective gazes.

of course, our activity in this vein is only a sandbox simulation of an actual, possible internet. digital surveillance and monitoring to come from lockdown exit strategies will likely parody Shock Doctrine in scale and scope.

regardless, we see how we should re purpose this internet to fit the scope of the social experiences we should be having in this moment: cross-platform, short circuited, through technical bodge and collective experiments in language and expression. we can find new ways to describe and ascribe information and existing ideas to exterior developments. we can find new ways to articulate our thoughts and identities, far beyond the expressivity of a custom Zoom background.

– richard, 2020

*if you want a full encryption, open-source video call platform then check out http://jitsi.org