Zoom is the Splenda of human connection

My organization, like many, is 5 months into ???@#$*$#& (eff) months of working remotely. Aka, work is all Zoom all the time. (It’s also a tad bit Microsoft Teams, which I’m kind of in love with for collaborative projects! Anyone else?!) Internal meetings, external meetings, trainings, celebrations, pau hanas, performance evaluations, on-boardings, board meetings, caucuses… all online. All digital. All. The. Time.

And you know what? I’m exhausted.

As a Highly-Sensitive Person and introvert, I tend to get tired at the end of days with a lot of in-person meetings, because of how much energy it takes for me to engage with other people and navigate all the data I’m getting from the room, their mood, etc. But I find myself more exhausted by Zoom. And I found a great analogy for why.

When we are trying to eat less sugar, sometimes we’ll turn to “diet” drinks that use a no-calorie sugar substitute, like Splenda or aspartame, as sweetener. These allow us to get the sweet taste we enjoy without the calories. While this is helpful for a Calories In, Calories Out (CICO) approach, it can do funky things to our cravings. In a 2017 study, researchers fed fruit flies two diets: the standard diet with sucrose (chief component of sugar) and yeast, and then one with sucrose and yeast plus sucralose (artificial no-calorie sweetener). Basically, what they did was make the second diet sweeter without making it more calorically dense. The second diet was sweeter, but provided no additional energy.

After eating the sweeter-but-not-more-energetic diet for a prolonged time (about 5 days), the flies ate more overall, consuming more calories than their non-sucralose-eating counterparts. This is not anomalous to fruit flies. An older study comparing two groups of rats, one drinking water and one drinking water sweetened with saccharine (another artificial sweetener that provides no food energy), found the same effect: the rats drinking the artificially sweet water ate more.

One of the suggested explanations for this effect is that the flies’ and rats’ systems registered the extra sweetness of the artificial sweeteners and also registered that they were not getting the same energy they usually get from sweeter food. Usually food that tastes sweet naturally provides an additional energy boost. Sucrose has calories; naturally-occurring food that tastes sweet has calories; eating naturally-sweet food provides an energy boost. The animals ate more trying to “find” or “make up for” the energetic lack that their bodies experienced when encountering extra sweet food. The extra but nutritionally empty sweet made their bodies crave and seek out the energy they expected but weren’t provided.

Zoom is the sucralose of social engagement.


Zoom has all the appearance of sociality, of being a place where we see, spend time with, and engage with colleagues and loved ones. And frankly, it seems like we’re getting that engagement more than we were before. Our social diet is “sweeter”, in that sense. Since COVID, more friends have wanted to do digital hangouts. More colleagues have wanted to check-in or meet more frequently. Many of us are feeding ourselves a social diet sweeter than it was before.

But just like artificial sweeteners, we’re not getting as much energy or connection out of this increased engagement. There is so much we miss by not being able to be next to someone. People are also and partially bodies to us, the physical markers and barriers contextualizing and describing our world to us, alive and thrumming with life and energy and sensory stimulation. All of that is lost on Zoom. At least, 95% of it is lost on Zoom. So we are consuming a diet with more social engagement, but are not getting the same connection and resonance that those interactions would give if we were in person. We’ve lost the in-person connection, the energy we get from others. So we try Zoom. But in Zoom we still fail to the full serving of energy our social interaction leads us to expect, so we continue to seek out more, thinking we must be missing something and the answer must be more of Zoom, more of connecting with people no matter what medium is available.

But while it’s true that we’re losing something in not being able to spend time with people in person, the solution is not (perfectly, anyway) more Zoom. Zoom is not a 1:1 substitute for the in-person connection; the connection we truly want with our loved ones, and the connection often most productive for work relationships, is not perfectly facilitated over Zoom. We eat more and are less satisfied so we eat even more and find ourselves exhausted from all the straining to find that connection and richness in a flat and interruptive medium.

I’m happy and eager to do Zoom, since right now it’s the only way to connect with those I love, and is the best way to facilitate meetings with those I need and want to connect with. But I think it’s important to recognize its limitations and, in this case, how those limitations impact our overall mental well-being.


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