Americans are already bored with videoconferences.
As large parts of the United States come to the end of their second week of quarantine due to the coronavirus pandemic, chatting for business or pleasure via video-sharing platforms such as Skype and Zoom has quickly become the new normal.
So, people are embracing ways to make them a little abnormal.
People are embracing backgrounds and filters that can make it look as if they are calling in from the moon or have transformed into a video game character as a way to bring a little levity.
“It’s absurd to just go on with life as if nothing has changed when so much has changed around us, and I think it’s really nice to be able to make a joke about it and laugh every so often,” said David Saff, 22, a student at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, who has been testing out backgrounds on the videoconferencing platform Zoom.
There’s a wide variety of backgrounds to choose from, and some people have even created their own, with one that can make users look like they’re in an episode of “The Office.” Zoom comes loaded with backgrounds of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge and scenes from space. The free feature is also customizable, leading others to create backdrops that make it appear they’re on the couch from “The Simpsons,” stuck in a level from “Super Mario 64” or in the opening scene of “Cats.”
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And then there are the filters, which go over people’s faces and can make them look like anything from a dog, with an ears and nose overlay, to a flaming skull.
It’s not just individuals creating backgrounds to add a little flair to their Zoom chats. Organizations from companies to colleges are making their own. Fox has backgrounds for some of its most popular shows. There are “Frozen the Musical’ and “Schitt’s Creek” backgrounds, too.
Filters and backgrounds aren’t new. They’ve been prevalent parts of online communication for years, particularly on Snap’s messaging app. But stir-crazy Americans heading into the third week of an open-ended quarantine with too much time to kill have started to get creative.
omg HELP i was messing around with some zoom add-on and now i have to do a serious business interview and am stuck like... this pic.twitter.com/sakL6m4o9k
David Zhou, 37, of New York, tweeted the newest lifehack for those who are working from home: film yourself looking thoughtful, set it as your Zoom background, and walk away.
“I think it was like lunch or I was on a break, and I was like, ‘You know what? I’ve got nothing else to do,’” Zhou said. “I can’t go outside. Can’t go anywhere. So might as well have some fun in my apartment while I can.”
Zhou said he’s also seen people enter a meeting with Snap Camera filters on. He recalled seeing someone using a filter that simply made them appear as a banana.
The desire to make communicating more entertaining while adding a bit of levity has led to an increase in downloads of the Snap Camera app, which allows people to apply Snapchat-like filters to their faces during video calls. Snap, which owns Snapchat, has seen a “a 10-fold increase in downloads” of its Snap Camera app, which allows users to overlay things like face filters, since the beginning of the month.
However, Zhou said, it’s typically a matter of time before the meeting has to get underway and the filters are turned off.
Do you have several Zoom calls on your schedule today?
“There definitely have been meetings where it starts out with people using backgrounds or Snapchat lenses, or, you know, whatever else, but usually as the meeting progresses people turn that off or switch to something that’s a little bit less distracting,” Zhou said.
The filters and backgrounds have also given users a chance to test the waters in a new, and somewhat dystopian environment.
When his classes at Montclair State University went virtual in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak — like scores of other schools and colleges across the country — Tim Jones, 21, decided it was his opportunity to push boundaries.
During his morning class Wednesday, he signed on to Zoom with his background set to the intro of comedian George Lopez’s TV show.
“I got shut down almost immediately, that was too distracting,” Jones said. “I think it was expected, but I wanted to see how it would go.”
For students such as Jones and Saff, using the filters to have a little fun is their way of staying sane during a time where nothing feels certain.
“I think it’s ridiculous to act like this isn’t a strange situation, so calling attention to it honestly kind of makes the whole process easier for everyone,” Saff said.
Kalhan Rosenblatt is a reporter covering youth and internet culture for NBC News, based in New York.