If the Covid-19 pandemic has taught us nothing else, it’s that video calls aren’t the most relaxing form of communication.
Yes, they’ve been invaluable during times of social distancing and stay-at-home measures. But personal calls can feel lacking because they’re a pale imitation of quality time spent with friends and family, while work calls can feel as if you’re being placed under greater scrutiny than usual.
Both can feel energy-draining for reasons we can’t immediately put our finger on. It’s a relief to leave the meeting and come back to something approximating normality.
In recent months, there have been many deep dives into the reasons why video calls have this psychological effect, but as reported in The National on Saturday, the first academic study to be peer reviewed has just been published in the journal Technology, Mind and Behaviour. It's authored by Jeremy Bailenson, a professor in the department of communication at Stanford University, who invented the term "Zoom fatigue" to describe the phenomenon.
While some have suggested that our struggles with video calls are because they lack the richness of real-life communication, Bailenson says the opposite: it’s sensory overload, the most significant form of which is the intensity of face-to-face interaction.
According to Bailenson, Zoom, Teams, Skype and the like play havoc with the notion of intimate space, once defined by American anthropologist Edward T Hall as around half a metre in diameter. But video calls seem to bring people closer than that. In an interview with the BBC, Bailenson compared it to facing someone in a packed lift.
"What do you do? It's too intimate. So you look away,” he says. “Humans have evolved to automatically use these gestures to maintain the proper amount of intimacy. In a normal face-to-face meeting, you're probably getting looked at maybe 1 per cent of the time. [But] video conference platforms smother you with gaze for the entirety of the meeting. It just doesn't make sense.”
Bailenson also notes the “all day mirror” effect, where video calling software defaults to showing you an image of yourself in real time, alongside your friends or colleagues.
"People are seeing reflections of themselves at a frequency and duration that hasn't been seen before in the history of media, and likely the history of people," says the paper. (The psychological effect of mirrors has long been a topic of research, and the findings are rarely positive.)
The two other effects pinpointed in the paper are the constraints that the camera places upon natural movement, and the increased cognitive load. Interpreting people correctly and ensuring that we’re making ourselves understood takes significantly more mental energy than a normal conversation, because subtleties of gesture, tone and facial expression can be lost.
Professor Jeff Hancock, Bailenson’s colleague, stresses that the aim of the work isn’t to find fault with the medium.
"I should emphasise that this whole project has been done over Zoom," he tells The National. "We've never been in the same room for the nine months we've been working on it! It's an amazing tool which allows us to do things that we couldn't before, but there are still ways to improve it."
Some of those improvements can be made by us, the users, and are simple. Make faces smaller on the monitor by reducing window size. Turn off the image of your own face. Sit further away from the screen, using an external keyboard if necessary.
Other improvements are cultural and surround the way we use the medium; Hancock believes there is a growing realisation that video calls have specific uses, and shouldn’t be seen as catch-all solutions.
“When new technology comes in, we tend to use it a tonne because of its novelty. Later, we fit it into our lives. Right now, I definitely have the feeling that there's a lot of hammer – which is Zoom – where I could actually use a stapler.”
There are no magic solutions to make video calls feel natural and relaxing. Instead, Silicon Valley is inventing new ways of connecting us that don’t create the “nonverbal overload” that Bailenson and Hancock identify as being so problematic.
Virtual meeting rooms created by companies such as Spatial and Teeoh use avatars to represent us on screen, giving us some much-needed distance and allowing us, in a sense, to hide behind them. It's not unlike the vision of author David Foster Wallace in his novel Infinite Jest, where the stress of video calls is solved by wearing masks. "It gives us some of our freedom back," says Hancock.
Another proposed solution is asynchronous meetings, which are conducted flexibly, over time, but using video and audio to allow participants to chip in when needed.
This could certainly help with the problem of managing our attention, a commodity that everyone wants but one only has so much of. But it would also require us to learn to address a camera or microphone as if it were a person, which some would say is even more unnatural than making a video call. According to Hancock, we can only establish what works best by trial and error.
“There are things we'll get used to, and things that will become unnecessary and we'll just get rid of them,” he says. “We’ll figure out when we need them, fitting them more to our lives rather than the tool determining whether it should be used or not.”
But that process will take time. Earlier this week, shares in Zoom rose 6 per cent as the company announced ever-rising sales. Like them or not, video calls will continue to connect us, even in a post-pandemic world.