Look Me in the Eye

Here’s an interesting Slate article on Google Effects (a Google video chat feature that obscures your image in real-time with CGI hats and beards and masks that adapt to the movements of your head and face). However, it isn’t so much interesting for being about Google Effects (since this technology has been around for years on stand-alone webcams), but for the conclusions it draws about why video communications just aren’t taking off. In a nutshell, we don’t like each other that much:

The beauty of a phone call is that you can be in your underwear, flossing your teeth, and no one will know…You can also roll your eyes, let your jaw gape open in disbelief, and mime little yappy-yappy gestures with your hand when your interlocutor won’t shut up. Perhaps most important, you can productively multitask. Go ahead, click open those emails, watch those cat videos, and post that tweet—all while pretending to be an engaged, supportive listener. (It’s that much easier and less guilt-inducing to do all this while instant messaging instead of talking via phone. Which is why even the regular telephone call is falling out of favor.)

We’ve been opining about video chat for more than half a century, and now, when it’s easy and basically free to use it, it hasn’t really caught on in the way that we thought it would. We could blame that on the technology, which still has a few bugs both in the hardware and software, but mostly it’s because we need filters.

As implied in the above quote, phones gave us a visual filter. People can’t see what we’re doing. And texting gives us an even better filter (you can compose texts on one end and effortlessly ignore them on the other), and has been wildly adopted as a result, to the point that phone calls are relegated to business and mom for many people.

And while I might be projecting my own social awkwardness here, that might mean that real-life face-to-face isn’t so much the preferred means of communication, just the easiest, most effective, and what we’re used to. If every time you emailed, texted, or called somebody was replaced with a physical world meeting, we might all become misanthropes. Basically, face-to-face communications has its tolerance limits even in the physical world.

And video chat, in its current form, might just exacerbate that due to the on-demand nature of technology-based communications in general. People can text, call, or vid us whenever they want, on their terms, regardless of what we’re doing or whether we want them to. In real life, we’re much less accessible, and when we do interact in real-life, we’ve prepped for it, knowing we’ll see this friend or that one or realizing we’ll be out in public generally, and we do it when we want to (when we can, at least).

Video chat, right now at least, is all of the bad parts of real-life face-to-face communication without enough of the good parts.

Image Source: Ashley Ringrose