Illustration by Eliane Gerrits.

It is strange meeting famous TV personalities in person. It feels deceptively familiar. You know them well, but they don’t know you at all. The relationship is a one-way street. After all, a television does not look back at you.

But that was then, before COVID. Now that many meetings have migrated to Zoom, we suddenly have a screen with two-way traffic. We look at the speaker, on a screen, just like in the old days, but the speaker also looks back at us. And, more importantly, we can look at each other. On small screens, it’s as if everyone in the audience has their own TV channel. All talk show hosts!

For many people, life on a crowded screen seems to take some getting used to. Not everyone realizes that his or her living quarters are on display. The video’s camera is unabashedly peeking through the wide open digital curtains. It is surprising how easy it is to forget that the screen is looking back. Only now do I understand all those reality shows, where the camera unashamedly broadcasts the most intimate moments.

This new world is a bonanza for born voyeurs like me. I can’t get enough of studying all the interiors, the bookshelves, the dogs, the idiosyncratic behaviors. The audience and their ambiance are so much more interesting than the speaker.

For example, I have gotten to know people I think of as Zoombies. During a lecture this month, I slowly but surely saw one of the participants sink deeper and deeper into his chair. At one point his mouth fell open. A while later, a thread of spit even dribbled out. He started to snore, which I could not hear, but could see by the nostrils moving up and down. The empty wine glass on the table in front of him must have been the culprit. A lecture during cocktail hour might not have been a good idea.

On the screen next to him, a woman was eating dinner. Bare feet with long nails on the table. Chewing loudly — I couldn’t hear this either, but I could see it from the mouth that didn’t close properly — she was enjoying a bowl of shrimp carbonara. Now and then a piece of shrimp fell next to it. She didn’t realize it or just didn’t bother to pick it up. Then she wiped her mouth with the tip of a tea towel and attacked the cheesecake. I wondered what she would do next. Trim her toenails?

Somewhere in the corner of the grid of Zoom screens someone worked on his cellphone all the time. It was clear that the lecture had completely passed him by. I even thought I saw him pick up the phone and start a conversation. The lecture largely escaped me too, fascinated as I was by the collection of McDonald’s Happy Meal toys behind the speaker. Toy Story’s Woody in his yellow-and-red plaid shirt held up one hand to me, his other hand on his pistol.

America has chatterati and literati — and now zoomerati. People who are online, all the time. All those postage-stamp windows on my computer screen with the unfathomable view of the domestic scenes remind me of a tall Dutch apartment building at nightfall. Everywhere the lights are glowing. The curtains are wide open because we have nothing to hide. A whole life story behind every window. The ultimate reality show.

Pia de Jong is a Dutch writer who lives in Princeton. Her bestselling memoir, “Saving Charlotte,” was published in 2017 in the U.S. She can be contacted at pdejong@ias.edu.

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