“Can You Get Out of Here?”: How Zoom Renders Private Classrooms Public
On April 5th, my sister Milly’s high school Physics class got “Zoom bombed.” This is a term that has been coined to describe the phenomenon of an uninvited stranger disturbing participants by dropping into an online meeting on Zoom, a video conferencing technology. This term, and its synonyms (like Zoom raids), have only recently required invention, due to the spike in Zoom use as institutions across the globe have halted all in-person gatherings in response to COVID-19.
My sister’s Zoom bomber was a teenage boy who joined the meeting and asked a seemingly innocuous question about something on the (virtual) board. My sister asked him, “Can you get out of here?” and the Zoom bomber replied, “Milly Berman will die a virgin and never be loved,” learning her name from the identifying information found below her video feed. The teacher soon figured out how to remove the bomber, but hours later, a discovery was made by another student: the bomber had been recording the incident and had posted a video of it on TikTok. The phrase “Milly Berman will die a virgin and never be loved,” already an intrusion into the online classroom, now had the potential to go viral.
This rude teenager was only trying to capitalize on a current trend. One YouTuber, who goes by username “twomad,” has spent the past month or so livestreaming on YouTube while Zoom bombing. He finds his way into supposedly private classes or meetings and starts screaming, singing, or taking off his shirt, depending on the amount of money donated by his viewers in real time. One compilation video posted on April 14th by user RoséKami is a standard example of his antics: twomad joins a Zoom class, starts dancing shirtless, and interrupts the lesson being taught to announce loudly, “So, a black hole? There are many in space, but there’s one in my ass as well.” When the teacher announces that he is shutting down the Zoom room, twomad starts mocking his bald head.
Ostensibly, twomad is performing these insults and illicit comments for his viewers’ amusement, but the real success of his livestreams is due to the powerful rhetorical question they seem to pose. How ridiculous would it be, twomad asks, if a student began stripping in a real classroom, or insulting the professor loud enough to overpower their lecture? What would happen if a real student brought these disruptive behaviors into the privacy of a real classroom?
This class disruption seems particularly intrusive because of the audience twomad brings with him into the classroom. His livestreams render the Zoom rooms he visits entirely public by proxy, exposing the names and faces of students to his 1.13 million subscribers. The Zoom bomber who told my sister she would die a virgin also tried to disseminate his recording to a wider audience. These Zoom bombers act as proof that every Zoom meeting can be broadcast beyond the parameters of its original audience, which cannot be said for the classroom in normal circumstances.
Teachers and students all over the globe have been constrained to the online classroom by forces beyond their control, which explains some of their discomfort in the virtual setting, but not all of it; this discomfort also has its roots in Zoom’s lack of privacy. In regular circumstances, the classroom acts as a private sphere, but moving it onto Zoom has forced it to become public.
There is a confusion of definitions here that is worth comment — isn’t the classroom public, if it is not privately owned, and anyone is able to enter it? In several senses of the word, yes; but here, the terms “public” and “private” are being used in a more Habermasian way. In his book The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, Jürgen Habermas identifies a new theory of the public; Michael Warner, summarizing Habermas, writes that “The public is composed of private persons exercising rational-critical discourse in relation to the state and power” (47). The ideal public sphere, according to Habermas, is a place into which “private persons” (land-owners) are able to enter when they so choose, and where “rational-critical discourse” (discussion between individuals using critical reasoning) can lead to political action that would benefit the public as a whole. The American school system uses the terms “public” and “private” primarily to signify governmental funding — a public school is funded by the state and open to all, while private schools are selective and funded by private wealth. These usages do not directly map onto the Habermasian conception of the public and private spheres.
No matter whether it is publicly or privately funded, the school building acts as a public sphere. Until they are of school age, children are confined to what the Ancient Greeks called the oikos, or the family unit. Entering the school for the first time exposes children to their first public, similar to the way a private, land-owning man in Ancient Greece would have been exposed to public life when he headed to the marketplace. Like the marketplace, the school building creates a physical space for a public to exist, and members of this public are able to join or leave this physical arena by switching schools. In the Greek polis, every land-owning man was considered a citizen, with the same rights as any other citizen; the “student” label, which is extended to every child who enters the school, mirrors this status of citizenship. Habermas points to this equalizing force of the public sphere as the prime facilitator of rational-critical discourse, which allows members of a public sphere to challenge public authority. Students, too, can employ rational-critical discourse (in the form of hallway gossip) to affect change. Of course, the ways in which students can challenge public authority are limited; instead of creating new laws or overthrowing governments, these politics more often take the form of creating social hierarchies by inviting a new friend to hang out after school, or challenging the governmental structure of the administration by protesting the dress code. Despite their small scale, these are nonetheless political movements, made possible by reason and discourse.
The school may be a public sphere, but this does not mean that the classroom is, too. The symbol of the locked door helps to explain the distinction between the classroom and the school. Anyone who meets the necessary criteria (of land-owning in the case of the Greek polis, or of knowledge-seeking at school) is allowed to enter and leave the public sphere at will. The school hallways are therefore constantly filled with an anonymous, fluctuating public. When a lesson begins, however, the classroom door is metaphorically locked, and the group of people inside transform from a random sampling of the student body into a class. If you saw a stranger walking through the school hallway, it would not seem odd; but if you saw a stranger sitting at the desk next to yours, you would be confused, just like you would be if a stranger sat down at the dinner table in your personal home.
In its most basic form, the private sphere of the classroom actually has much in common with a family unit. In the private sphere as Habermas defined it, the male “master of household” had power over all the other members (Habermas, 3). This corresponds directly to the dominating role of a teacher in a classroom (although the subjugation of slaves and women in the Greek oikos, which Habermas seems to pardon, is perhaps not the most accurate parallel to the typical student-teacher relationship). The members of a family unit or of a classroom are fixed in place and incapable of autonomous movement in and out of those units. All labor done within the private sphere of the oikos, including reproduction, housekeeping, and slave labor, was not monetized or valorized outside of the household, creating a strict division between housework and “real” work completed in the public sphere. Similarly, the labor students do within the classroom (all intellectual work completed for a grade, like written papers) has little value outside of it, and is held in contrast to the future “real” work they will do after graduation, off of which they will be able to make a profit.
The claim that the classroom acts as a private sphere might seem to be discredited by the classroom’s reliance on debate and discussion, which Habermas valued so highly as a facet of the public sphere. Yet in reality, class discussion affirms the privateness of the classroom, because the role of discourse in the classroom is different from its role in a Habermasian public sphere. For Habermas, rational-critical discourse (Räsonnement) with the potential to challenge structures of power was only possible between private individuals. These individuals needed to own private property in order to participate in the “debate over the general rules governing relations in the basically privatized but publicly relevant sphere of commodity exchange and social labor” because their ownership would assure that they had a private stake in the formation of these general rules, but at the same time, their status as as independent land-owners instead of as dependent parties would facilitate their capacity for rational thought and critical debate and protect their reason from outside influences (Habermas, 27).
By this logic, rational-critical discourse is not, in fact, possible in the classroom, because the explicitly stated goal of learning and the implicit pressure of being graded muddy the liberty of student debate. Students partaking in classroom discussion are not independent parties; they are being assessed on what they say, and therefore cannot express themselves completely freely. Additionally, the discourse held in a classroom has limited potential for political action. If a student were to criticize the administration within a classroom, the teacher would have the power to shut them down, without further comment; that same critical statement would only have political potential once it was shared with other students in a relationship of horizontal equality, a.k.a. brought out of the private sphere of the classroom and into the public sphere of the hallway.
Of course, this is not to say that the classroom is entirely private, all the time. It is notably not as private as the family home, because private bodily needs like food and sleep are not typically met in the classroom. Confusingly, the private sphere of a classroom is also capable of becoming a public — Warner writes that self-organized “text publics” spring into existence “by virtue of being addressed;” in the classroom, these situational publics can be formed when a student steps up to give a presentation, or when the teacher divides the class into smaller groups to close read different texts (Warner, 67). In those moments, familiar classmates can be transformed into an anonymous public formed around the text with which they are interacting. Yet even in moments when the private classroom becomes more public, it is still a private sphere — and therefore nowhere near as exposed to the public as the Zoom classroom.
Despite many settings that effectively mirror the classroom experience, like screen sharing and breakout rooms, Zoom fails in its goal to recreate the physical classroom by confusing this private sphere with elements of publicness. As discomforting as stories about virtual hangouts getting raided by accounts screensharing hardcore pornography or school district meetings overrun by anonymous accounts chanting the “N-word” may be, Zoom bombings are just the beginning of Zoom’s problems with an unintended public.
Zoom meetings can be recorded by the host, but they can also be recorded by any participant on a personal cell phone, and those recordings can be publicized on other platforms easily, widening the audience of a Zoom meeting without consent from everyone involved. Seemingly private chats can be sent between guests, but those personal messages can also be viewed by the host of the meeting after it is terminated. The ability to manipulate video and audio streaming make it easy for each student to pay attention only as they see fit, so it is hard to tell who is watching or listening to a speaker at any given moment. Each user can modify their screen name, making it unclear who is even in the Zoom room. On top of these quotidian concerns, there is a possibility that hackers could use Zoom to take control of personal webcams, and that the software on the Zoom phone app might be selling users’ personal data to Facebook. Therefore every word spoken or typed in a Zoom meeting is potentially being performed to a public of unknown proportions.
These public elements of a Zoom meeting feel even more threatening because they have been transplanted into the private sphere of the family home. In non-quarantine conditions, entering the public requires physically leaving the private sphere of the household; but during quarantine, joining a physical public is socially irresponsible, so the public has moved online and the actual distinctions between public and private have become vague. Somewhat paradoxically, relocating the private sphere of the classroom into the even-more-private sphere of one’s own home via Zoom renders both spaces more public. One particularly horrifying example of this is the YouTube video “Woman Forgets She’s Still on Camera and Start[s] Pooping During Her Zoom Meeting,” whose caption warns menacingly, “Make sure you turn off those cameras before you pull down those pants ya’ll [sic].” And although most of us generally manage to keep on our pants while our video is streaming (especially after having viewed that video), Zoom meetings that take place in personal spaces still display elements of our most private lives for public inspection. Habermas’ equalizing force which unites all the members of a school as students is less powerful when those students are stuck at home. Inequalities between students become more apparent on Zoom — signs of privilege or the lack thereof are easily observable, with clues ranging from the quality of the video stream to the conditions of the student’s surroundings. Generally, the too-intimate glance provided by Zoom into family dynamics and embarrassing childhood posters on bedroom walls reinforces the feeling that Zoom meetings are intruding on thoroughly private spaces.
Writer Kate Murphy for the New York Times argues that using Zoom is such a terrible experience because the technology cannot accurately replicate human interaction. She writes:
Video can be vexing … because human beings are exquisitely sensitive to one another’s facial expressions. Authentic expressions of emotion are an intricate array of minute muscle contractions, particularly around the eyes and mouth, often subconsciously perceived, and essential to our understanding of one another. But those telling twitches all but disappear on pixelated video or, worse, are frozen, smoothed over or delayed to preserve bandwidth.
Interacting with others through video chat, Murphy argues, is a more exhausting mental process because of the barely perceptible facial cues that are missed when video is streamed. These missing cues are also significant because their absence has the power to transform well-known individuals into an unfamiliar public. Unavoidable technological limitations, like audio freezing and the absence of subconscious indicators, render the friendly faces of classmates into pastiches of recognizable yet ultimately strange humans. Therefore, even in conditions where there is no malicious interruption to the Zoom meeting, the class community can still be rendered an anonymous public because the technology limits our capacity to recognize and understand one another through body language.
In response to general anxiety about Zoom raidings, Zoom has implemented several security measures in order to further secure the online space, such as the option to “lock” the Zoom room once every student has entered, the choice to enable “waiting rooms” which require the host to manually admit each would-be participant to the meeting, and the power to mute or remove any misbehaving members. Each of these settings requires extra labor on the part of the teacher that further separates the experience of a Zoom classroom from that of a real classroom, but even if these tools could be implemented easily and were guaranteed to work perfectly all the time, they still would not rid Zoom of its publicness. Making strides toward cyber security is important, but there is a difference between being a safe online platform and being an effective private sphere. Heightened security will never be enough to render the Zoom room as private as a classroom; the reliance on an internet connection alone is enough to ensure that.
Schools and institutions need to make educated decisions about how to use Zoom, cognizant of the unintended publicness inherent in the technology. In this time of shattering change, administrators everywhere made the swift decision that Zoom would be the platform for the online classroom. Although some institutions, like New York City public schools, have since banned the use of Zoom due to privacy concerns, many others have chosen not to. In an email to the Wesleyan University faculty forum, one administrator wrote that although they “share[d] faculty concerns about privacy and security,” the University would continue using Zoom. Each professor could use whatever platform they preferred for the rest of the semester, but the administrator warned against switching, writing, “We do strongly recommend that faculty consider the potentially high disruptive impact that pivoting to a different platform at this point in the semester will have on your classes and your students.” Zoom was chosen because it was the quickest and easiest solution, which makes sense in the midst of an epidemic; what makes less sense is continuing to choose Zoom over less familiar, more private platforms simply because of the possible “disruptive impact” of switching. (After all, our lives are constantly being disrupted at this point — what’s one more shift?)
In many Zoom classrooms, silence is felt strongly. When a teacher asks a question, they are met with no response for several painful seconds. From a student’s perspective, this has everything to do with the newfound public quality to class discussion. Students don’t know who’s paying attention to their screen, they don’t know who’s passing judgement on their background, and they don’t know who’s recording their words. Even if the student is technically speaking in front of the exact same group as they would be in the real classroom, the lack of physical body language and the potential for an intruder makes the online classroom feel not just public, but alien. Of course, twomad is probably not lurking in the shadows of every Zoom call about to make an offensive comment, and the gripping film “Milly Berman will die a virgin” did not end up going viral. However, the knowledge that those things could happen at any moment on any Zoom call means that Zoom will never be able to replicate the real classroom, and that’s more than uncomfortable — it’s scary.
- Chill_Joy, director. Woman Forgets She’s Still on Camera and Start Pooping During Her Zoom Meeting. YouTube, 22 Mar. 2020, www.youtube.com/watch?v=BMlFtSlSJq8.
- Gallagher, Ryan. “Best Practices for Securing Your Virtual Classroom.” Zoom Blog, 2 Apr. 2020, blog.zoom.us/wordpress/2020/03/27/best-practices-for-securing-your-virtual-classroom/?_ga=2.28727423.2118623806.1587913917–1418163566.1584903248.
- Habermas, Jürgen. The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1991), 1–56.
- Hakim, Danny, and Natasha Singer. “New York Attorney General Looks Into Zoom’s Privacy Practices.” The New York Times, 20 Mar. 2020, www.nytimes.com/2020/03/30/technology/new-york-attorney-general-zoom-privacy.html.
- Lorenz, Taylor. “‘Zoombombing’: When Video Conferences Go Wrong.” The New York Times, 20 Mar. 2020, www.nytimes.com/2020/03/20/style/zoombombing-zoom-trolling.html?action=click&module=RelatedLinks&pgtype=Article.
- Murphy, Kate. “Why Zoom Is Terrible.” The New York Times, 29 Apr. 2020, www.nytimes.com/2020/04/29/sunday-review/zoom-video-conference.html.
- “Regarding Securing Your Zoom Meetings, and/or Using Teams in Your Courses.” Received by Facultyforumemail@example.com, Regarding Securing Your Zoom Meetings, and/or Using Teams in Your Courses, 6 Apr. 2020.
- RoséKami, director. TWOMAD RAIDS RANDOM ONLINE CLASSES PT11. YouTube, 14 Apr. 2020, www.youtube.com/watch?v=2mA0xMUjGg8&feature=youtu.be.
- Warner, Michael. Publics and Counterpublics (New York: Zone Books, 2005), 21–124.
- Xia, Rosanna. “USC, School Districts Getting ‘Zoom-Bombed’ with Racist Taunts, Porn as They Transition to Online Meetings.” Los Angeles Times, 25 Mar. 2020, www.latimes.com/california/story/2020–03–25/zoombombing-usc-classes-interrupted-racist-remarks.