A friend just posted a picture of himself, looking bug-eyed and exhausted after a long day on Zoom, a day spent staring fixedly at the screen and its grids of students and colleagues staring not quite back—their gaze up, down, or sideways; some barely in the frame, fuzzy and backlit.
In this spring of quarantines and lockdowns, being able to connect online has been invaluable. But the means by which we do so are often far from ideal. In the introduction to The Social Machine: Designs for Living Online (MIT Press, 2014), I wrote:
“The online world is a synthetic universe—entirely human-made and designed. The design of the underlying system shapes how we appear and what we see of other people. It determines the structure of conversation and who has access to what information. Winston Churchill once said “We shape our buildings; thereafter they shape us.” … Architects, however, do not control how the inhabitants of those buildings represent themselves or see each other—but the designers of virtual spaces do, and they have far greater influence on the social experience of their users... This book is about the design of these interfaces, written for both the creators and users of new social technologies. It is a guide to understanding how existing systems influence behavior and a manifesto for designing radically new environments for social interactions.”
At this time, when we are more depending on these interfaces than ever before, I’m happy to say that the MIT Press has made the online version of this book available for free here on PubPub. Now that so many of us have experienced the value—and the limitations and discomforts—of our existing systems, it is a good time to think about and deepen our understanding of how the interfaces through which we connect online influence how we act, affect our impression of others, and shape the culture of online communication.
Confronted with the abrupt canceling of all in-person gatherings, the instinct, unsurprisingly, has been to try to replicate virtually the experience of being together. Video-conferencing, which allows people to look at each other as well as talk, is the obvious choice of technology: Zoom--along with Webex, Skype, Hangouts, Teams, Blue Jeans, Jitsi, etc.— added millions of new users worldwide in the span of a couple of frantic weeks. Classes from kindergarten story circles to graduate school lectures are now conducted via these applications, as are church services, seders, cocktail parties, visits with the grandparents, and, of course, business meetings, the form of assemblage upon which this technology was modeled. Seeing the faces of friends, family and colleagues is especially welcome in this time of isolation.
However, video-conferencing has flaws that can make it a poor substitute for “being there”. For example, in person, you can glean much from observing someone’s gaze. Are they looking attentively at the speaker? Surreptitiously reading something amusing on their screen? Staring fixedly and meaningfully at the clock? Gaze also helps us manage conversational turn-taking. When a speaker pauses, if they are looking into the distance, they are often just forming their next thought, but if they are looking at the listener, it indicates they are done speaking and are seeking a response. Furthermore, we are acutely sensitive to being looked at, which, depending on the context and people involved, can mean anything from polite and thoughtful attention to hostile and threatening aggression. Yet in group video-conferences, gaze is inherently off-kilter. If someone is actually watching you attentively, they will appear to you to be looking off elsewhere. Meanwhile, the person who seems to be looking directly and solely at you actually is not; instead, they are creating that impression (which everyone in the conference experiences, not just you) by staring intently at the camera. While gaze is one of the most important and subtle social cues in person, it can be a confusing and misleading one via video.
In addition, being present on video can be physically awkward and exhausting. Shifting sitting position—even leaning forward or back—can take you out of frame, so you sit stiffly immobilized. You may feel self-conscious, continuously self-monitoring your facial expressions, for (like 1984’s Winston facing the telescreen) you never know if or when someone is closely observing you in the Zoom panopticon.
Video-conferencing can be the right medium in some circumstances, such as virtual cocktail hours, family visits, or focused small-group meetings, where the attendees really want to see each other. For better or worse, video-conferencing requires that the participants focus exclusively on the call and are not simultaneously washing dishes, going for a walk, or reading a book; indeed, this enforced attentiveness is part of what has made it so useful and popular--yet also resented—during this lockdown. But not every get-together, meeting, or lecture needs or is best served by this particular and demanding medium.
Certainly, there are technological improvements (e.g. smart cameras that follow to keep you in frame) that could alleviate some problems with video conferencing. But more fundamentally, recreating “being there” is often not the right goal. Instead, we should think about questions such as: What do the participants want to communicate? What do they want to see of and know about each other? What patterns of engagement do we want to foster? What should the experience feel like?
For example, think about an online lecture. Is that grid of audience faces really useful? An alternative would be (after perhaps an initial video greeting at the beginning) to instead show each person as the notes and questions they write during the lecture. This frees the audience from the tyranny of staying in frame and maintaining appropriate expressions; it would give the lecturer and other audience members’ immediate and meaningful feedback when something was especially striking or confusing; and it would motivate actual attentive behavior (note taking) rather than the imitation of it (staring at the computer’s camera). Such an interface would be useful even once classes return to lecture halls.
Or consider social gatherings. While sometimes we do want the focused attention of a video call and the connection of seeing others’ faces, the demands of the medium keep these events relatively short and infrequent. One might want instead more casual yet ongoing sociable companionship, a virtual hangout of friends that you could drop in and out of as you go about your day. While people now do this this with Zoom, etc., video, with its self-presentation demands, is an awkward and limiting anchor. Yet, regular audio-only group call isn’t enough: there is little sense of presence, it is hard to know who is speaking—or who are the listeners to whom you are speaking. However, audio with a well-designed visual interface would fix that and more. It could, for example, show the gathering’s history or allow for pseudonymous participation or play an active moderating role (e.g. cutting off interruptions or encouraging shy speakers). There is a tremendous and still little-explored design space for virtual interaction.
In seeking or creating designs that go “beyond being there”, it is important to keep in mind that “beyond” does not mean “more”. Since the pandemic put an end to in-person meetings, I’ve been running an online writing group. We meet each weekday to work “together” for several hours, divided into sessions of 25 minutes of work, 5 minutes of break. The interface has no video or audio, just a text chat in which I send out messages announcing the work sessions and breaks, and where participants optionally say at the beginning of a session what they intend to work on. It is spare, simple—and effective. It is peer pressure, boiled down to its most minimal essence. Everyone - including me - has been surprised at how well it works, how much easier it is to focus, to push aside insidious, attention-stealing distractions—just with the simplest indication of the presence of others. Indeed, simple interfaces for text conversations—which date back to the earliest days of the internet and are still, in their various incarnations from email lists to Twitter, Reddit and more, the mainstay of online communication— are silent, low-bandwidth, and computer-readable, their content can be persistent or ephemeral, the participants identified or anonymous; they are so ubiquitous today that it is easy to overlook how radically different they and the communities they have enabled are from anything before.
As I write this, much of the world is confined to home, facing further weeks, and possibly months, of compulsory physical distancing. Virtual interaction will be our primary form of social interaction for some time. But even once we can again be physically together, many will want to retain some elements of this time, such as working at home more often, socializing with distant friends, and engaging politically or creatively with an extended online community. Although The Social Machine was published well before this pandemic, the final paragraphs seem especially meaningful now.
“Understanding privacy issues and assessing information is important. But so is recognizing the joy of sociability. Face to face, we surround many of our social interactions with pleasure. We go out to lunch together, or talk while taking a walk; we meet over coffee…. the emphasis [in this book] on the visual and the aesthetic has been to create this sort of experience. Setting and sociability—interface and impression— are inextricably linked.
“In the words of William Whyte, what attracts people the most is other people. The designs in this book are fundamentally about seeing and being with people: about vividly portraying individuals, bringing conversational participants into focus, populating online spaces, and visualizing social patterns. As with being in the city, going beyond being there holds risk for us, but it also holds the promise of inspiration and new connections.”