I do miss the deft flirtations of in-person learning. It is no longer as conspicuous for me to bite my lip at the girl presenting on the reproductive organs of flowering plants over Zoom. No one can decipher who I’m flashing aggressive eye contact at. Then there’s the issue of communication. It feels rather clumsy to private message someone in a huge online lecture with the tongue and eggplant emoji. It could be tactless to message any stranger at all unless it has to do with the class, otherwise, they become aware of the constant but subtle voyeurism of Zoom.
If a classmate I don’t know messages me, even if they’re simply complimenting my background collection of 107 John Cena action figures, I grow paranoid. Have they been watching me this entire time? Pinned my video? Googled my name during a lull in the lecture? Noticed how I flare my nostrils whenever the professor says “quantum mechanics?” Remote learning magnifies our awareness of ourselves and how we are being perceived by others. Our faces are projected in a Panopticon, a circular prison in which the prisoners can never discern whether or not they are being watched. Zoom classes hold a certain level of intimacy in which we possess glimpses into the habitats of our peers. Where they sleep. What pets they have. It feels intrusive. I’m not supposed to be in the room with them —not until we’re friends or maybe lovers. Now all I’m left grasping in my search for intimacy are some beautiful, digitized faces.
I must admit that it is a distraction to be in a two-dimensional classroom made up of twenty mugshots uniformly blinking at each other. I go off on tangents wondering if everyone is wearing pants or why there is a communist flag hanging in the TA’s background. I study how everyone fidgets at their desks or in their hammocks. I want to privately message everyone about how they made the omelet on their desk as if we are in elementary school passing notes asking if anyone will be our girlfriend. Except now the teacher can’t intercept the notes and send us to the principal. I can let myself fall into a rabbit hole of horniness as far as my grades will allow.
Outside of Tinder and serendipity, campus relationships can begin with the accidental brush of fingers in the lab or the intrepid bonding over the filmography of Italian neorealist director Pier Paolo Pasolini. These encounters of passion can continue, but their seeds are planted into new codes of behavior. It is no longer impolite to stare. I find myself pinning the videos of men with magnificent mustaches so I may daydream about what a bristly whisker kiss would feel like. In the in-person world, the discomfort of my relentless goo-goo eyes would command attention from the entire class, but now none of my pixelated peers will ever suspect it. There was a rumor that professors could see who was pinning whose video, so I now cover up my tracks by pinning a plethora of other videos thereafter so Professor Maas doesn’t suspect I fetishize mustachios.
There is even something obscurely sensual concerning those who have their cameras off. I could disappear into anonymity, but I desire to be perceived. Those who are in class with their blinds drawn could be doing anything behind their smiling profile pictures that may or may not be catfishing us. They might not even be there at all. This is privacy we were not provided in the classes of olden times. You couldn’t sit through physics lectures in a bunny costume and a diaper unless you wanted to be seen.
As voyeurism and exhibitionism are two sides of the same coin, the watchers can also relish in being the watched. Maybe someone is pinning my image upon their screen. In that case, I might as well give them a show akin to the courtship behavior of a Bowerbird building his complex nest: adorning it with branches and colorful tchotchkes in a struggle to attract a mate. Humans have always done this through the curation of their dress, but now there is an added element of our nest. I place brightly colored objects in my background to catch someone’s eye. I hide easter eggs in the view of my webcam in case someone will message me about my life-sized cardboard cutout of Mr. T. carefully hidden behind my bed. I perform my avian mating dance from my desk chair in case it invigorates someone to lay eggs with me in my Collegetown crib. The entire class has permission to peek through my blinds and imagine what it is like to lay upon my unmade bed.
There is modest pleasure in walking through the darkened Ithaca streets so that we may catch a glimpse of domestic life through the lit windows. The most mundane of activities attract us: people dancing alone in their apartments, caffeinated at their desks, watching trashy reality tv on their couches. It’s not inherently sexual beyond the genuine curiosity of glimpsing other lives in all their ordinary rawness. Now our lectures are filled with hundreds of these rear windows; they are vignettes of our mysterious colleagues in their spaces curated and natural. They’ve also gained a peephole into our worlds. We just might give them a show.
Anya Neeze is a student at Cornell University. Comments can be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org. Boink! runs during alternate Sex on Thursdays this semester.