When the Camera Becomes a Mirror

As of late, so many of us are spending time on Zoom, Skype and Google meetings  and we get to see each other in our usually private spaces. You may be chatting not only with your family members and close friends, but also work colleagues, clients and individuals near and far with whom you have only the loosest of relationships. Some of us are even ending up on TV and large group broadcasts, from the comfort of our own homes. There is a certain awkwardness this brings a self-conscious atmosphere that feels a bit invasive. You might feel like others are sizing up not just your hair and apparel, your mannerisms and your vocal tone, but also your home furnishings, your decor, the degree of neatness or messiness surrounding you. Thus beware: keeping up with the Joneses is still part of life during Coronavirus quarantining, for those of us who are participating in video interviews and meetings. 

Dominic Raab, a British politician, was mocked on social media for the two stacks of books that sat on a shelf behind him, as he was interviewed by the BBC, according to a Daily Mail article (May 21). Viewers critiqued him for trying to look well read; for how contrived it appeared; for selecting particular titles to look just right on camera. And he hasn’t been the only public figure to face this type of shaming.Yet Dominic Raab is not the only individual who is seemingly concerned with his brainy, serious status in the media: folks are curating not only their hair and their clothing, but also their intellectual image. It’s not new, but it is being analyzed with more scrutiny now that Instagram and Zoom are becoming such integral aspects of our lives.

It is an age-old concern to care about one’s image, and in today’s world it manifests itself in the social-media realm, not just in person. Where once you may have been careful to style your hair before taking the photograph for your driver’s license, today we curate our social media accounts, we edit and re-edit our writing, and now we have to curate our furnishings because of the online lifestyle that is our present and likely much of our future. It is hard to hide, even when you are inside.

What are we trying to impart when we are on camera in our homes– our intellectualism, our sophistication, our status? Our tastes are on display, certainly if you are pressed to engage in Zoom calls. The average Joe or Jane is being pulled into this when he or she has a work meeting, a religious service, a lecture or other on-camera function. 

I realized this for myself because I have been joining a regular Zoom meeting for religious services. The room in which I do this has bookshelves and plenty of books– as well as sports memorabilia, including football and baseball figurines; hats; stuffed animals; and a photography darkroom enlarger. I didn’t think other attendees would notice but a few friends sent me messages, asking about the football swag and “the black thing on the desk” (the enlarger). Will crowds scoff at a room and a soul who dares to be filmed in front of sports tchotchkes? Does a “serious” person undermine her or himself by not having the “right” books and other items in their living space?

Do our bookcases and shelves add to our persona or distract from our message? Do they make us look cerebral or show-off? Should they consist of books only, or also plants and memorabilia, quirky knick knacks and trophies? How about a few of your old Hot Wheels cars or a worn baseball glove?

In her article “The ‘Credibility Bookcase’ Is the Quarantine’s Hottest  Accessory,” (New York Times, May 1) Amanda Hess discusses the current vogue for the well-crafted bookcases and shelves that the world is tuning in to see, like it or not. 

A Twitter account, “Bookcase Credibility” (@BCredibility) is exploring this with the motto “What you say is not as important as the bookcase behind you.” Various professors, notable personages, politicians, writers and others are given the once-over as far as the way they pile books and other items on shelves. 

In “Living With an Antilibrary” (October 2018) Kevin Dickinson explores the issues surrounding those who have more books (and books on shelves) than they have actually read. Are these the endless possibilities or the hoped for dreams of ambitious readers? 

The books and the shelves are not new, of course. But now with social distancing during the Time of Coronavirus, we are seeing each other’s homes up close and daily, and virtually. We may not be hanging out with people physically, but we are staring at their home decor. For some it may seem intrusive, but it is also turning into a way of boasting, of showing our upscale taste. 

Alyce is an attorney who told me that “I do Zoom for client meetings and court appearances, and I definitely styled my bookcase and background. The clients and the court will form an impression of me based on this image.” Thus for business reasons, people will make sure that their home or office decor is up to snuff. 

Shari, who is a staff member for a New York politician, pointed out that she goes on Zoom meetings lately and “I see the same damn book cases.” And sure enough, there are websites such as Unsplash.com, Hellobackgrounds.com, Pinterest.com and Gettyimages.com, among others, that are offering us images to use for our Zoom and Google meetings.

Being “house proud” has a long tradition; so many of us want to show off our homes and decor, or when we find it necessary to do so, we prep and make the house look its best so as to show off. Think of Jay Gatsby, who is shown to be falsely promoting an image of himself as cultured. In Chapter Three of The Great Gatsby, we learn that there are uncut books in his library. Gatsby has not read them, but the books are there to give an image of him; he wants his visitors to see him in a certain light. A visitor nicknamed “Owl Eyes” figures this out. 

What else might you want to show off (even if in an off-hand manner) during a video interview, besides well-stocked bookcases? Works of art? Flowers? Musical instruments? Trophies, awards and plaques? Diplomas from Ivy League or other top name colleges? Do some of these come off as too crass? Apparently we must find the fine line between enough classy items and not tipping over into show-off mode.

And people do admit that they are interested in viewing online what is in other homes now; think of all the virtual concerts (especially those that are benefits) airing during the quarantine, such as Rise Up New York, A Night of Covenant House Stars, and many others that are coming up. Billboard magazine has written about the many options viewers have for stay-at-home viewing pleasure. And those watching get to see musicians and other performers and presenters, often in their homes or recording studios, gardens or even kitchens. 

When people take on the role of viewers, they judge those who are on screen: they could be complimentary, critical or envious, or could be looking for their own decorating or videography ideas. These criteria will vary based upon the viewer’s age and work status (corporate attorney versus a college sophomore; public school teacher v. Congressman), and certainly by tastes. And there are practical concerns as well: a young graphic designer living in a Brooklyn studio apartment has less room to share on camera than a corporate lobbyist who lives in a three-story house in northern Virginia. 

What do we think about those who stand in front of shelves of compact discs and record albums, while on Zoom? What will be said about parents and guardians who attend virtual PTA meetings while eating dinner? Will some brave souls be willing to undergo interviews while standing in front of bottles of liquor, or dirty laundry, or other potentially embarrassing but realistic scenes at home? Do most of us want realism or something aspirational? Glamor and glitz, or a peer-group coolness factor– or frank, unadorned reality? Each choice could speak volumes about the figure in the center of the screen.

It’s unclear how long a huge cohort of us will be engaging in working-at-home, schooling-at-home, religious services at home, group meetings of all types, interviews, concerts and various other performances. Even when quarantine restrictions are lifted or eased, many people will continue to work at home full time or part time. The move toward home-based activities being on the screen is only going to grow. And how we project our living quarters while being on camera is going to evolve. 

Going deeper, have more folks become obsessed with creating the impression of intellect, or a greater impression of being knowledgeable? Are more people going on Zoom and Instagram, intending to show off their intellectual credentials? Are the well-appointed bookshelves enough, or does someone need to present more? 

My friend Eliana mentioned that on occasion she has taken to “flash(ing) my Mensa card” on social media. Would doing this be seen as good humored or would it threaten “audience members” who do not possess membership in Mensa, the “largest and oldest high IQ society in the world”? 

Might you be the type who is reading “Ways to Showcase Your Intelligence” and “Eight tricks to make you appear more intelligent” and “How to Look Smarter” (a WSJ article) and similar articles, with the goal of improving your intellectual standing on Zoom and Instagram?  Are so many of us concerned with being more intelligent or appearing more intelligent when they do online meetings? And is this a lazy path toward making a better impression? 

Let’s go back several decades ago to see the roots of American obsession with looking smart, likable, and influential. The best-selling book “How to Win Friends and Influence People” by Dale Carnegie, was first published in 1936. He lectured and taught courses on this for many years, then assembled a series of techniques for a person to practice and make him/herself more likable, more influential, to have leadership skills, persuasive techniques, and more. One of the most famous practitioners of the Dale Carnegie method is investor Warren Buffet, the “Oracle of Omaha,” who has praised the teachings for making him a better speaker and seem brighter. 

Buffet is not the only man who has wanted to seem more intelligent, persuasive and commanding. This desire has now manifested itself in social media and interactive online meetings. 

On the one hand we have a significant portion of society that is obsessed with the physical credentials and markers of elitism: Ivy League and other top-college diplomas, toney bookshelves in our homes, impressive pieces of art and antiques within view. At the other end of the spectrum we have a population that distrusts the “elites,” who scorn higher education (not just Ivy League) as bastions of liberalism. We have this schism, which actually has very old roots, of intellectualism and showing it versus willful ignorance and showing it. It is older than the concept of the “culture war”: the roots can be seen in Alexander Hamilton promoting business and Thomas Jefferson promoting the agrarian, as if they are separate entities altogether. Going further, it is those who distrust science versus those who trust science.

But for those who do crave the well-curated impression of intellect as seen on Zoom and Instagram, there is also the fear of losing ground, of not keeping up with the Joneses. Fear of being left behind and being inadequate. If we don’t present up to a certain standard, then we might be mocked; we might not get the promotion at work or the next competitive project to work on. And this has to be achieved in a cool manner, not in a clumsy fashion.

You might be concerned about “How to Detect a Dumb Who Is Faking Smart (Brian Lee, for Lifehack), so you want to appear smart and widely read, so those bookshelves on Zoom can help you achieve a level of above average. 

Those bookshelves are fraught with the weight of your image, and they have to be part of your media wardrobe. We may project confidence and intelligence, but underneath it all, so many of us lack confidence and doubt ourselves and our credentials. The microscope of social media just notches this up another level.

After all this deliberating about being on camera and deciding what bookshelves you need to stand in front of, let’s also remember that this is most certainly a first-world problem. And even in the first-world there are many among us who do not own the prerequisite technology for Zoom or Google meetings, and many who do not have a home. 

Ellen Levitt

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