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The boom for Zoom

The video-calling app is not just hot with Gen Z, it's also vital for people separated by virus prevention measures

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The company's emergence as a cultural phenomenon used to host parties, concerts, church services and art shows is unprecedented. Zoom could not have prepared to become a meme.

ON Sunday afternoon, Eleanor Dolan celebrated her 17th birthday in Minnesota with 20 of her closest friends. They listened to pop music and traded jokes. When the group broke out into Happy Birthday to You, Eleanor pulled a slice of cookie cheesecake close in front of her and pretended to blow out the toothpick she had substituted for a candle on top.

Then, she blew lightly on her computer screen. Miles away, her friends extinguished candles atop baked goods in front of them. The party was taking place over Zoom, a video calling app. Eleanor's father briefly popped into her screen to take a photo.

Teenagers have jokingly referred to themselves as "Zoomers" online for years; now the name is literal. Overnight, Zoom has become a primary social platform for millions of people, a lot of them high school and college students, as those institutions move to online learning.

Zoom Video Communications is a videoconferencing company in San Jose, California, that has been thrust into the spotlight over the past week. On Monday morning, its iOS app became the top free download in Apple's App Store.

On Sunday, nearly 600,000 people downloaded the app, its biggest day ever, according to Apptopia, which tracks mobile apps. While the stock market crashes, Zoom shares have soared this year, valuing the company at US$29 billion - more than airlines like Delta, American Airlines or United Airlines.

Zoom has been preparing for this moment since the new coronavirus began spreading in China in January. Even then it was easy to see that Zoom's primary customer base - videoconferencing desk workers - would become more reliant on its services while quarantined at home. So the company began closely monitoring its capacity and started hosting free training sessions. In China, Zoom dropped its 40-minute limit for free calls.

But no amount of planning could have anticipated the company's emergence as a cultural phenomenon used to host parties, concerts, church services and art shows. Zoom could not have prepared to become a meme.

A Facebook group for young people trapped at home called Zoom Memes for Self Quaranteens, founded less than a week ago, has already grown to more than 150,000 members.

College students across the country are going on Zoom blind dates. Parents of sixth-graders at Rosenbaum Yeshiva Of North Jersey organised a Zoom "recess" for their children. Ethel's Club, a wellness platform, is conducting Zoom tarot card readings, breath work and cannabis hangouts.

What Z stands for in Gen Z

It is a high-stakes moment for Zoom, which was founded in 2011 by Eric Yuan, a former Cisco Systems executive. Its sudden cultural cachet also brings new concerns over privacy, security, content moderation, safety for young people and sensitivity to the seriousness of the pandemic. There's also the tiny matter of keeping the service up and running.

"This is a very critical moment," Mr Yuan, Zoom's chief executive, said on an analyst call earlier this month. "Overnight almost everybody read and understood they needed a tool like this."

Harvard University, like many schools, has cancelled all in-person graduate and undergraduate classes and will conduct them via Zoom.

A common joke among college students is that they all go to "Zoom University" now - the same school, just with very different price tags. Zoom University merch is already for sale on Amazon and RedBubble. "We finally figured out what Z stands for in Gen Z," a college student in the Zoom meme group joked.

Many students say that adjusting to school closings and public health guidelines to isolate has been incredibly hard. They have used Zoom to attempt to replicate some sense of normalcy. Parties, sorority socials and beer pong nights have found a new home on Zoom.

Some students developed Zoom-themed drinking games for Zoom parties, adjusting the popular game "never have I ever" to "never have I ever left quarantine."

As new Zoom users flock to the platform, social norms are still evolving. Michael Crisp, a student at Kansas State University, tweeted: "i'm unfamiliar with zoom etiquette. do we gotta ask to leave to go to the bathroom or what. can i have food? can my cat ride shotgun? do i absolutely need pants? this is my HOME bro."

Any Zoom event with too many callers can also become chaotic. Some people leave their microphones on, chat nonstop in the sidebar, flip their backgrounds around. On Saturday, a midnight Zoom party for young climate activists hosted by Ayisha Siddiqa, 21, a founder of Polluters Out, attracted more than 80 attendees, mostly teenagers. After about 30 minutes, the party got so big and boisterous that everyone broke out into smaller rooms.

Marco Polo, a video chat app, saw sign-ups increase nearly three-fold last week over the previous week, the company said.

Zoom is baked into many colleges and schools already that use it. The product's layout makes it easy to talk with multiple people at once. And Zoom has some features that mirror social media apps. A button called Touch Up My Appearance casts a soft focus over the video display, smoothing out the skin tone of the presenter like an Instagram filter. Custom backdrops can hide messy bedrooms.

Zoom has a "hotter brand" association, said Rishi Jaluria, a senior research analyst at DA Davidson. "Younger people don't want to use the older technology." Joshua Rush, 18, a high school senior in Los Angeles, said: "Out of nowhere, I feel like Zoom has clout."

People also pick Zoom because it works. Paul Condra, a technology analyst at PitchBook, said Zoom's reliability and simplicity has made it the "standard" in videoconferencing software. "This is a crisis tailor-made for Zoom," Mr Condra said.

As with all products, users should be careful embracing Zoom without being aware of some of the privacy issues. Jules Polonetsky, chief executive of the Future of Privacy Forum, warned that Zoom's terms of service include some stipulations that could overreach into invading user privacy.

"The standard Zoom privacy policy allows data to be shared for targeted advertising," Mr Polonetsky wrote in an email interview. And some of the company's standard terms are not consistent with the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act, or FERPA, "in addition to many of the 130+ state student privacy laws passed since 2014," he added.

For workers using the software during business hours, Zoom also includes a feature that can track some aspects of whether a participant is multitasking on a computer and report it back to the host of the call.

"Most users will have no idea," Mr Polonetsky said. "Zoom should make it very obvious when this setting is enabled or some people are going to be extremely embarrassed." A Zoom spokeswoman said this feature is designed for employers to ensure workers complete training. It is switched off by default.

On Monday morning, teachers at thousands of schools across the United States dialled into Zoom for the first time and began delivering virtual lessons. Zoom executives, including Mr Yuan, did triage - on Zoom, of course - from their homes in Silicon Valley.

The schools were taking advantage of Zoom's decision, announced last week, to make its services free for kindergarten through high schools in the United States, Italy and Japan.

Zoom operates a "freemium" business model: Groups of up to 100 people can use it for 40 minutes at a time at no charge but must pay US$14.99 per month or more for extra features, like bigger groups and administrative controls.

It's not clear whether the influx of families, teenagers and tarot card readers will translate to an influx in revenue for Zoom. Mr Jaluria, the DA Davidson analyst, said that over time, the company "will get a benefit from this massive brand building that's happening," especially when the college students using it today enter, or hope to enter, the workforce in a few years. NYTIMES