Doom and Zoom: how a global pandemic meant good news for the tech industry

Video conferencing app Zoom added 2.2 million monthly active users in 2020 – more than the entirety of 2019.

Abandoning your workplace and missing out on drinks down the pub is a tough ask for many. But a plethora of tech platforms are cropping up, offering a digital alternative not only to the office, but to the big night out, too. 

Commercial networking tool Webex saw a 22 time increase in traffic in February through its app in China, as people adapted to new norms there. And according to Zoom CEO Eric Yuan, his company has encountered a large increase in the number of free users, meeting minutes, and new video cases”. Wall Street analysts Bernstein estimated that by the end of February, Zoom had added 2.2 million monthly active users in 2020 – more than the entirety of 2019

Among those new users is Lindsay Kutner, a London-based talent agent for actors, who is using Zoom for a far different purpose than its roots in coordinating business meetings. Her fiancée was in and out of jobs a few years ago, and began running pub quizzes in and around Clapham and Old Street in London. 

On Sunday we decided we would all be in isolation and wanted to have a bit of fun, so we set one up on Zoom,” she says. My parents from Spain came on it, and people all over London. We’re going to open it up a bit more this Sunday, because people are saying: I wish we knew about it’.” 

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Kutner isn’t the only one bending the app to her needs: a search of Twitter finds many others using the app to organise pub quizzes, as well as some of the more raucous college parties, queer club nights, and DJ sets to have popped up in the last fortnight. And it isn’t just Zoom, that’s experiencing a spike in popularity. 

The resurgence of Houseparty like a phoenix from the digital ashes is one of the most puzzling elements of the coronavirus-quarantined tech sector. When I spoke to a number of British teens for a story about their tech usage three years ago, Houseparty had just arrived on the scene, as a space for people to meet digitally and play games. It’s like FaceTime, where you can talk with up to ten people on the same call,” a 15-year-old patiently explained to me then.

In the three years since, it has withered on the vine, too passé even for its young user base. It was bought by Fortnite developer Epic in June, and languished near the bottom of the app store charts – until the last few weeks. According to monitoring agency Sensor Tower, the app’s download rate has increased 323 times from its February download rate. Another monitoring firm says the app was downloaded more than 40,000 times on 20th March – compared to only 25 times at the start of the month. It’s revolutionising the way we work and live, though plenty are already complaining about the endless stream of notifications when contacts open up the app.

Coronavirus has also kickstarted other apps and services that were struggling to gain a foothold. Instagram Live was striving to gain cut-through with users until we were all banished to our homes and looking for entertainment. Now we’re as likely to watch celebrities as they live stream from their homes as we are to see them in the (closed) cinemas worldwide. 

A number of musicians have been performing live concerts through the app, giving it a shot in the arm, while others – including Ariana Grande – have been posting snackable performances on Twitter. A recent DJ D‑Nice broadcast on Instagram Live saw a vast number of social media-using celebrities dropping in as if they were hanging out in the VIP section. According to Tama Leaver, an academic at Curtin University in Australia, the coronavirus has seen a refiguring of our interaction with social media and technology. 

It’s less about hacking [the platforms] and more about people returning to the roots of what social media is for: it’s about sharing our lives with each other, and as we distance ourselves physically we’re ramping up the connections digitally,” he says. 

It’s almost as if we needed to physically disconnect to rediscover how joyful online connections can be.”


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