Video conferencing and the limits of representability

Video conferencing and the limits of representability

Anthrodendum welcomes guest blogger Christian Elliott, an undergraduate senior majoring in cultural anthropology at Augustana College in Rock Island, Illinois.

Video conferencing and the limits of representability

by Christian Elliott

It is Friday the 13th of March. Not a particularly auspicious day, as it would turn out, though I’ve never been particularly superstitious. I am sitting at a long seminar table in a small classroom in Old Main, the pale-yellow stone bell tower-topped academic building at the center of Augustana College’s wooded campus in western Illinois. Around me are my classmates, anthropology and sociology students I’ve known for four years now. There is energy in the room as we discuss each other’s research papers—in less than two weeks, we’ll be reading them aloud to a room full of undergraduate and graduate anthropology students at a regional conference, and we must be ready. There’s something else in the air too, though, a sense of uncertainty. While we talk about theory and data, our thoughts are elsewhere, in Seattle and in New York, where the number of confirmed coronavirus cases grows by the day. Just two days ago, national sports leagues cancelled their seasons, Tom Hanks tested positive for COVID-19, and markets plunged around the world. The conference might be canceled, our professor warns us, but we’ll be back together on Monday. We’ll have each other. And if worst comes to worst, we’ll still be able to present our research on campus in May.

It is Monday the 30th of March. I am sitting at a table in my room, books and papers strewn around me. It is time for class, and I am wearing my pajamas. The video call blinks to life and a grainy image of my anthropology professor’s bearded face appears as the internet connection and pixels struggle to approximate his likeness on my laptop screen. I say “hello,” rubbing at the bags under my eyes and sliding on my glasses. His voice comes through my speakers in response:

“Huh, that’s weird, I can’t hear you.”

“Uh oh,” I say. It’s not particularly surprising. I tell him to try refreshing the browser window and rejoining the call. Of course, he can’t hear me say this. The program tries to turn my words into captions, which appear at the bottom of the screen next to a picture of my face that looks a little bit like me—it was taken a long time ago, in what feels like a different life. The captions say something about milk and rejuvenating a cat. Nice try, Google Meet. I send a text message through the program instead and hear a “ding” from his end (which has come out of his speakers, into his microphone, through the internet, and back out of my speakers) as he receives it, squinting at the screen, his face too close to the webcam. His face blinks away and then back as he does as I suggested. Voila, we can hear each other. By now some of my classmates have joined the call too. I can see their faces, their messy hair, their bedrooms and kitchens in the background. Through my speakers from one of their far away worlds I hear a baby crying; from another, a dog barking. Just over a week before, during our spring break, the governor of Illinois signed an executive order requiring all residents to stay in their homes. With school closed indefinitely, this is our reality from now on. We won’t be back in that small classroom together ever again. None of us are sick, but we are all anxious, frustrated, and tired. Our professor tells us the presentations are off, so we can just turn our papers in to him at the end of the term. We’ll stay in touch regularly using video conferencing—it’ll be “just like” seeing each other in person.

Google Hangouts Meet is required software in many of my classes. The college’s Reading/Writing Center, for which I work as a peer tutor, has also adopted Meet for tutoring sessions as the “closest approximation of what we do in person.” As children of the internet, we current college students are, in a way, uniquely prepared to learn online. My fellow classmates were frequent video-chat users pre-quarantine, using either Apple’s FaceTime, Microsoft’s Skype, or Google’s Hangouts, to talk to one another, family, and friends while away at school. Now, Zoom cocktail hours and Netflix parties have joined the list of virtual activities. Tech companies boast video-chat users can be “in two places at once,” and can speak “face-to-face” just as they would in person. How true is that claim? How is all the video conferencing we’re doing as a result “social distancing” (which we should really call “physical distancing,” to avoid implying we should stop communicating with one another) affecting us? The Harvard Business Review, in a recent article claimed the “crisis-driven experiment” of distance learning raises questions about whether students “really need a four-year residential experience.” Lectures don’t require “human interaction,” the authors suggest, and could be “commoditized” as multi-media presentations or video conferences. Can video conferencing and online learning replace face-to-face higher education? As a student of the social sciences, I often turn to sociological or anthropological theory in an attempt to make sense of phenomena I can’t begin to understand on my own. Phenomenology, the study of lived experience, seems like a natural place to start to illuminate the inherent complexity in what’s become a mundane quarantine staple—the video-chat. 

Scholars of communication—dating to Alfred Shutz, half a century ago—have long favored face-to-face interaction over all other forms (e.g. the telephone, telegram, and written word). This “pro-proximity” stance deemed other forms of contact “derivative” and “inferior.” Shutz explained this dynamic in terms of “gradations of immediacy”—the more “symptoms of the conscious life” that flow between communication interlocutors through a given technology, the more direct that relationship is (1967). When video-chat software first became commercially available, phenomenologists like Shanyang Zhao suggested that even with this more “embodied” form of “face-to-device” computer mediated communication (CMC), only a “limited amount of nonverbal cues can be gleaned from voice and image transmitted over distances” (2005). In 2001, computer scientist and virtual reality expert Jaron Lanier similarly wrote that “video conferencing seems precisely configured to confound” the nonverbal elements of human interaction. Despite the proliferation of video-chat and conferencing since then, scholarly still largely see video-chatting as a fundamentally different type of communication from genuine face-to-face interaction. Several recent phenomenological sociology studies have addressed video-chat and conferencing in depth. The main question asked is one of belief—whether video calls can actually give the impression of being physically present with the person you’re speaking to. Past studies, sociologist Ferencz-Flatz summarizes, have revealed the answer to be largely one of “existential disappointment” (2018). 

Video conferencing certainly has advantages when compared to other CMC technologies. It allows us to experience the “sheer communicative persona” of the speaker (look, tone, body language) such that communication can occur even without either person speaking (Ferencz-Flatz 2018). It also connects two lived environments, two “worlds within mediated reach” (Zhao 2004). Video-chat doesn’t actually fuse together the separate concrete situations it connects, however—instead, it generates a “novel form of intersubjective context, a new sort of “composite social environment” (Ferencz-Flatz 2018). When I connect with a regular tutee (one I used to meet with on campus) for a virtual writing center tutoring session, our respective worlds do not become one as they do when he walks into the physical writing center and sits down at my table. We speak over each other, then both try to let the other person speak and end up speaking at the same time again. The tiniest fraction of a second of internet latency throws off the cadence of our conversation. Additionally, the flow our consciousnesses splits—part of each of us is synchronized with the other, while the other part remains in our separate rooms, at our separate desks, synchronized with our separate families with whom we share our homes. I always feel tired after a day of online classes, and I don’t even have a daycare full of children in my house or five barking dogs or busy railroad tracks in my backyard, as I know some of my classmates do. Psychologists have deemed this sense video-chat exhaustion “Zoom Fatigue.” Sociology has another answer—the very act of simultaneously generating two separate “subjective meaning contexts” can be difficult (Zhao 2004).

In the virtual writing center session I also find myself intensely aware of the large flag of South Africa displayed on my tutee’s wall and the pile of laundry in the corner of the room in the background. This increased awareness of life’s backgrounds led The New York Times to produce several articles recently with recommendations for how to “look your best” in video conferences. Of course, my tutee is also aware of the background he’s sharing with me and can control his “presentation of self” by making changes to the microphone and camera. In large class video conferences, for example, I’ve noticed students often mute their microphones by default, only unmuting them to “raise their hand” in a request to speak. This change in control represents a “radical inversion” of normal communication situations because the interlocutors actually “take over the kinesthetic gestures of the other” in their interaction (Ferencz-Flatz 2018). Underlying the interaction is this base level presupposition of communication that each interlocutor is filming his/herself for the other. Furthermore, in a video conference (as opposed to in a face-to-face conversation) we must watch ourselves speaking as we speak and watch one another as we watch ourselves watch one other. In doing so, I experience the same sort of discomfort as when I hear or see myself in a recording—I’m presented with an “exclusively external perspective” of myself in real time (Ferencz-Flatz 2018). The shape of the “communicative world” of our conversation is dramatically changed from what it was in person.

It’s worth addressing another small but fundamental was in which video-chat conversations rework the dynamics of social engagement. As sociologist Norm Friesen describes, video-chats disrupt a basic type of interaction that underlies all communication—“mutually enfolding gazes” (2014). In face-to-face conversations, intensive mutual reciprocal eye contact aligns two people perceptually. Eye contact is a way of indicating that your interlocutor is “attending to your attention while you are attending to hers” (Friesen 2014). Sartre once wrote “I see myself because somebody sees me.” As a core part of human communication, eye contact has “layers or moments of perceptivity and receptivity.” You can feel yourself being observed, and you tend to believe your gaze is “felt” by others you look at, even momentarily. As anyone who’s ever “felt” someone’s eyes on them knows, gazes have a power, a “tactile force.” That force is noticeably absent from video-chats for a simple reason—given the different positions of cameras and screens, simultaneous reciprocal eye contact is physically impossible. You can make it look like you’re making eye contact with the other person by looking into the camera but doing so precludes actually looking at the person’s eyes on the screen. Both people feel the other is looking at them only when they actually aren’t. To experience this entirely different mutual awareness firsthand, simply try “pinning” one person’s video image onscreen in a multi-person video conference. For me at least, doing so produces immediately strange feeling of “spying,” like looking at a person while concealed by sunglasses. They should be able to see you staring, but they can’t. As a result, there’s an awareness that you must be “always on” and “larger than life-size”—if you pick your nose, all twenty people in the video-chat could be watching you do it (Friesen 2014). There’s no way to tell whose attention is directed at you, and when—you’re observed and, in a way, objectified in the eyes of those with whom you’re communicating.

Video conferences are also an “all or nothing” social space—attendants are either “there” or not (Friesen 2014). Take the example of a 10-person video conference I attended for writing center training recently. I opened my email and clicked a link to join the conference and was immediately thrust into the call with a “ding” as Google Meet announced my presence to the others already in the conference room and talking with one another. Others appeared shortly thereafter, each bringing with them what Friesen calls characteristics of their “separate auditory environments.” Every time our writing center director activated his mic, we all heard the banging of workers outside his home doing repairs. When he announced the end of the class an hour later the conference abruptly ended, with person after person disappearing without a trace or transition. Proponents of video conferencing as an alternative to regular, face-to-face business meetings might see this placeless efficient spontaneity as an advantage, but Friesen explains the problems with this idea. Hallways and conference rooms are not simply ways of getting to meetings—they are “spaces of habitual traversal” through which meeting attendees “converge” on their purpose mentally and physically (Friesen 2014). Transitional “threshold” spaces for informal communication and improvisation are actually critically important for productivity, Friesen argues. The classroom is not necessarily the most important space for learning on campus; the “getting there” spaces (hallways, coffee shops, the quad) are necessary too. The apartness inherent in “Distance Learning” means college students like me can no longer walk out of the meeting with the writing center director to get a coffee and casually discuss a new idea for a project that wasn’t appropriate to talk about in the meeting, or talk about a new philosophical concept with friends while walking out of class. This “all or nothing” nature of video conferences is an emblem of the sort of efficiency-focused, commoditized online education the Harvard Business Review article authors would like to see—the writing center is distilled into its core effect—45-minute virtual sessions focused on improving papers—with time for rapport-building chit-chat or long casual conversations.

Video conferencing is not an online education panacea. It does not provide a magical extension of the self into remote realms, enabling cheaper, more efficient learning. Instead, it disrupts and distorts the self, body, and standard pedagogies. As my anthropology professor recently said using Google Meet’s chat feature, his face frozen on my screen, “I hate     this!1!” Technical media have indeed, as Friesen argues, run up against a limit of representability (2014). From a phenomenological perspective, “mediating the immediate” is an impossible task—at best, gazes and voices are “reflected and refracted as if in a rudimentary hall of mirrors and echo chamber.” We’ll all feel better when we can exit the funhouse and see each other’s real faces and hear each other’s real voices once again.


Ferencz-Flatz. 2018. “Ten theses on the reality of video-chat: A phenomenological account.” De Gruyter Mouton.

Friesen, Norm. 2014. “Telepresence and Tele-absence: A Phenomenology of the (In)visible Alien Online.” Phenomenology & Practice 8(1): 17-31.

Lanier, Jaron. 2001. “Virtually There: Three-dimensional tele-immersion may eventually bring the world to your desk. Scientific American. 

Schutz, A. 1967. The Phenomenology of the Social World, trans. G. Walsh and F. Lehnert. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press.

Zhao, Shanyang. 2004. “Consociated Contemporaries as an Emergent Realm of the Lifeworld: Extending Shutz’s Phenomenological Analysis to Cyberspace.” Human Studies 27: 91-105.

Zhao, Shanyang. 2005. “The Digital Self: Through the Looking Glass of Telecopresent Others.” Symbolic Interaction 28(3): 387-405.