Zoom

overall rating:

1.5

planets

Jana Vítková
7/25/2021
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If you have lived through the recent history of the years 2020 and 2021, I'm sure the word 'Zoom' resonates with you. Zoom is a video conferencing platform that can be used through a computer desktop or mobile app and allows users to connect online for video conference meetings, webinars, and live chats. During the COVID-19 crisis, Zoom has seen a surge in popularity, with millions of people using it to stay in touch with others. The app's main selling point is that it offers free, 40-minute conference calls with up to 100 attendees. It's easy to use — people don't need a login to access a meeting — and the interface is relatively intuitive. Zoom is one of many communication tools like Skype, Microsoft Teams, and Google Meet. When looking at how green video conferencing is, it makes sense that speaking to someone over a Zoom video call is better for the environment than flying to meet in person. However, its environmental impact may be more complex than one initially may think.

What it's made of:

1.5

When it comes to Zoom's features, they include one-on-one meetings, group video conferences, screen sharing, plugins, browser extensions, and the ability to record meetings and have them automatically transcribed. On top of that, some devices allow users to download a virtual background to use as a backdrop behind themselves. To my surprise, this seems to make all the difference when it comes to looking at how sustainable Zoom is. To give a couple of examples, a one-on-one meeting consumes less electricity than a group video conference, a meeting with participants having their video cameras turned on requires more energy than a meeting with participants having their cameras off, a meeting lasting 2 hours requires more electricity than a meeting that lasts for 30 minutes, and a meeting with several participants connecting from different places needs more energy as the emissions factor depends on the grid mix in each location. In other words, the number of participants, the tools being used in the meeting, the time spent in the meeting, and the location from where a participant connects, matter (for more information, have a look at David Mytton's blog with helpful calculations regarding this matter: https://davidmytton.blog/zoom-video-conferencing-energy-and-emissions/). Zoom acknowledges their shortcomings in the environmental field but fails to provide concrete quantitative data with relevant background information regarding their positive commitment to tackling climate change. If Zoom is so great for the environment in comparison to the alternatives, you might expect them to provide numbers to prove it.

How it's made:

1.75

The online platform is compatible with Windows, macOS, iOS, Android, Chrome OS, and Linux. Officially, Android and iOS are supported by their respective programming languages, namely Java and Swift/Objective-CZoom is noted for its simple usability, but the overall sustainability of programming languages remains majorly unexplored. Green coding is a term referring to programming code that is written to produce algorithms that have minimal energy consumption. There are two types of considerations to make: structural (the energy measures related to code blocks) and behavioural ones (the energy consumption that is related to user scenarios). Programming languages, such as Scala or Golang, are designed to be as lightweight as possible. However, whilst these languages are partly utilised by major brands (Netflix, LinkedIn, Google, etc), they tend to be more difficult to be fully adopted as mainstream programming languages due to not being built for high user performance. Interestingly, many software engineers would argue that good code in all languages is inherently ‘green’ because they enable the development of green and eco-friendly apps. In fact, one could argue that code often produces efficient replacements to real-world processes. When it comes to Zoom and its respective programming languages (Java and Swift/Objective-C), I was not able to find any further information regarding its (un)sustainability. 

Who makes it:

0.75

Let's talk about the founder, the employees, and the users. First of all, Zoom was founded in 2011 by Eric Yuan, a Chinese-American billionaire businessman, engineer, and CEO of ZoomAs a first-year university student in 1987, he was inspired to develop videotelephony software while he took 10-hour train rides to visit his girlfriend and was looking for an easier way to "visit" her. The Zoom CEO claims to strive for sustainable customer happiness (the term is further explained as striving for an excellent customer experience; is that really the same as sustainable happiness?). He believes that sustainable customer happiness includes three main elements: a working product, a simple process of using the product, and content people. Sustainable happiness, according to Zoom, essentially comes from making others happy. Second of all, the current Zoom management team includes 17 employees and the board of directors has got 10 members. Zoom's marketing team is heavily reliant on 'delivering happiness to users.' What's more is that Zoom is ranked #1 in customer happiness as it is the cheapest, easiest to use video conferencing product. Although it has received #1 in customer happiness, Zoom users complained the most about the support they received when struggling with using the product. Third of all, Zoom flourishes because of its users. Counting both free and paying users, Zoom has 300 million daily meeting participants. That's an increase of 2900% since December 31, 2019, when 10 million daily meeting participants logged on. It is difficult to measure how sustainable Zoom is as it depends on the number of participants in one meeting, on the tools used in one meeting, on the time spent in one meeting, and perhaps the alternatives if Zoom was not around. Let's imagine there are two participants, both joining from London. When you add in the electricity consumption from your computer or phone, it may be that using the London Underground to commute into the office for a day of meetings is better (or similar to) using Zoom. Again, this calculation depends on many external factors, which is why it is difficult to give one simple answer to the question of sustainability.

I suggest that as a Zoom user you choose to have only the essential features on (such as audio and, if required, a video). However, if you don’t need video, feel free to turn your camera off; it’s an easy way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. In context, it’s important to remember that people may have many reasons for turning their camera off: privacy, clutter, Zoom fatigue, a poor Internet connection, or something else. On the other hand, they also have great reasons to keep them on, including increased social connection and context, body language, reading of lips, and the basic enjoyment that comes with seeing people whom you cannot see in person. Overall, it is important to always think of your individual situation as well as the situations of others. Zoom is a great alternative for when you cannot meet people face-to-face, which is why I appreciate their platform as it enables one to seek opportunities and interact with people from the other side of the world. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Zoom has been great at keeping everyone supported to stay in touch with their family members, friends and colleagues. That being said, if you are based in New York and thinking of meeting with a colleague also based in New York, meet them in person. That way, you reduce your carbon footprint and have a fruitful social interaction. As we are creating the new normal once the pandemic is over, Zoom should not be everyone's daily means of work or their only form of social interaction.