Zoom avatars—some thoughts
In 2022, Zoom added avatars to their Meetings and Webinars products. Initially, Zoom only offered animal avatars, but custom human avatars were added in 2023.
Zoom avatars have received mixed reviews (1, 2), including this reaction from Miguel Neves, Editor-in-chief at Skift Meetings, on LinkedIn:
“Why but why has Zoom created an avatars feature?
They recently announced a bunch of really interesting features. I’m entirely not sold on their feature, this looks like some sort of strange meme.
Say no to #avatars, really.
According to their blog you can ‘choose from extended Animal Avatars, Human Avatars, and even Meta Avatars to help you customize how “virtual you” shows up in meetings’.
Who asked for this?”
My thoughts on Zoom avatars
Some people may just find it fun to meet via avatar, perhaps on an occasional basis to surprise others or shake things up. Though, in general, I don’t recommend doing this for a business meeting unless you know the other participants fairly well, I’m a fan of fun.
More seriously, I think there is a good case for making avatars available for the neurodivergent and folks who are—for whatever reason—feeling that they’re not going to be looking good on camera for a meeting. Let’s support the “I” in #DEI.
Supporting a culture where camera-off is not an unusual occurrence is an alternative. I’ve often seen this when working with students, who may be in challenging living spaces. I generally have no problem being on camera. But there have been times when it makes sense for me to turn it off. I suspect that’s true for most people.
And remember it wasn’t so long ago when no one had cameras streaming self-video over the net. We did fine back then. In fact, all cameras-off meetings can be quite refreshing!
So, though I’m not in favor of forcing everyone to display avatars, I don’t have a problem if some people want to use them.
Nancy Snowden shared a detailed neurodivergent perspective in the comments on Miguel’s post:
“For many neurologically diverse folks, seeing themselves on screen causes a lot of anxiety and distraction. If I were to consider this with a growth mindset I wonder if this is an excellent way to increase an employee’s sense of belonging, maybe help them to be more productive, or hell, maybe make exhaustingly tedious and mundane experience of zoom calls even just a little more bearable.
When I consider my own neurodivergence this feels like a great opportunity- being on camera is distracting, taxing and exhausting for me. It’s harder for me to manage impulse control such as interrupting people, I’m often distracted by something in the background of my screen, but being off camera is seen as being distant or disengaged. When I was in the throes of severe postpartum depression and back to work after 6 short weeks, I could barely manage to shower or brush my hair, the anxiety of having to be on camera felt unbearable, but it felt so expected of me.
Also, being wary and judgmental of something new is exactly why many fumbled the “pivot to virtual” just three years ago. And for some, the outcome was devastating for their business. You don’t have to love something to learn it, bookmark it & have it in your toolbox 🤷🏻♀️”
Joan Eisenstodt reminded us about the past—and the present:
“Years ago, using a few AOL chat rooms, the ability to engage with someone based on content of posts v. their looks all to reconsider the biases in judgement based on someone’s appearance.”
And Jan-Jaap In der Maur had a positive spin:
“This is the first step into the future of us all having one steady digital identity that we ourselves fully own.”
[IMO, I’m skeptical that a) Zoom is interested in putting energy into this, and b) that it’s likely to occur.]
To summarize, I’m fine with Zoom adding avatars. However, I hope the company doesn’t put too much time into tweaking this feature at the expense of developing functionality that I think is more important, such as improved tools for meeting facilitation.