Look at me – or not

When initiating online communication it is important to decide whether or not to use video streaming as the default type of communication. The decision hinges on the pros and cons of video streaming in general and of the technological, social, and cultural contexts in which our online communication is to take place in specific.

To start with, video streaming allows participants to share a fair amount of nonverbal communication cues. While nonverbal communication does not constitute 93% of our understanding of human communication as sometimes is claimed, it is important in case of inconsistent or contradictory communications. When participant statements are unclear, nonverbal communication cues help us interpret more accurately what meaning or emotions they try to convey. At the same time, being not visible might help participants to loosen up: unseen they can make themselves more comfortable in potentially embarrassing ways or engage in stress-relieving side activities.

Next, video streaming allows for a kind of eye contact between participants. It has been shown that keeping eye contact improves cohesion within a group. In addition, a lack of eye-contact is “the chief contributor to toxic online disinhibition” (i.e. the lack of restraint people feel when communicating online in comparison to communicating in-person). Unfortunately, keeping up the appearance of real eye contact during a video streaming session is problematic since we look at the screen where the other participants are visible to us and not at the camera that registers us so that we always somewhat seem to avoid eye contact.

Then, the cues that are provided in video streaming might activate prejudices among participants based on personal characteristics of the other participants. Gender characteristics, ethnic characteristics, physical ability characteristics, age characteristics, social class characteristics, regional accents, ideological and religious cues – all these can interfere with an open mindset among participants. They might also cause the emergence of a hierarchy among participants.

Finally, video streaming encourages socially acceptable behavior. This is a mixed blessing. It means on the one hand that participants are more likely to refrain from activities that are not related to the online conversation and thus diminish chances on a less constructive asynchronous communication. On the other hand, participants displaying socially acceptable behavior try to not deviate too much from the norm, which means that addressing painful issues or coming up with unusual reflections is much harder for them.

The technological context decides which options are realistically available. In the current pandemic video streaming is a burden on the available bandwidth. This means that online video sessions may suffer from delays and interruptions. The pandemic also provokes an ethical question: does the purpose of our online communication justify the demand we will make on the available internet resources? In less extreme times, bandwidth might still be a factor to be reckoned with, depending on the specific situation at the physical locations of the participants. For users employing a VPN, bandwidth might be an issue too.

An important social context is whether participants have experience with video streaming. The more experience they have, the less of an issue it is. Another thing to consider is whether participants have already met in-person. If so, showing themselves on camera might be less of an issue. Also, the home situation of participants is important. A major issue here is whether the online session will disturb others present or whether the session can be unexpectedly disturbed by others or by pets or external sounds.

Finally, it is important to take the cultural context of online communication into consideration. In cultures in which shame is a relevant factor in social relations participants might feel obliged to display socially desirable behavior only. As was mentioned above, this is a mixed blessing. In cultures in which keeping up appearances is important video streaming poses a challenge for participants. Cultural norms demand that they themselves and their background look their best. At best, this means participants need to invest time to prepare for each session. At worst, this excludes individuals from participating altogether.

In short, the decision on whether or not to employ video streaming in online communication is not that simple.