Monday, March 14, 2011

Thinking about Skype

I've been "Skype-ing" for a year or more, and I am just now getting into it (aside from Skype calls to our children and grandkids, which was an instant hit). I have been "Skype-ing" close friends and colleagues more often, but I still prefer the phone for a lot of business and personal interactions, but I have not been entirely sure why.

It may seem a strange admission for a "video professional", someone who has spent decades trying to visualize everything, but it's just now sinking in on me as to why video calls might NOT become the dominant form of business communication.

It's a performance, dude. No doubt about it, a one-on-one or group video call is more of an event than a plain 'ol phone call. For one, in my experience anyway, it's still common for such calls to be mutually arranged beforehand via text or voice--as we do for conference calls. In such occasions, I can feel my "inner producer" at work. All this suggests that, regardless of the payoff, putting on a video call "game face" demands more energy from us than other, "cooler" forms of communication.

So what are the differences between the phone and the video call? It seems to me there are at least three features of video call that might account for our disinclination to use it all the time:
  • On video, we are communicating a whole lot more as we speak. Real-time voice itself is a pretty broad-band affair, compared to asynchronous text. In an ordinary phone call, there are all sorts of "paralinguistic" information carried on through emphasis, intonation, pitch and other dynamics of vocal delivery. Doing all this on video widens the data stream, adding new meaning through facial and hand gestures, head and body posture, and overall animation.
  • We are communicating even when we are not talking. As a live audience, you inadvertently give off "comprehension cues" to the speaker. These cues may be largely subliminal for both of you, but they are there and have been demonstrated to influence the interaction. If it is easier for the speaker to know when you are not "getting it", it's also easier for him to read your "fake listening". Those wonderful little phone-silences-while-they-are-talking that allowed you to scratch your nose, roll your eyes (for the benefit of others in the room), or browse your email, are sadly missing once you get on camera. Ask any poker player about the unconscious "tells" they read in other players' behaviors.

  • The props and the set communicate too. One of the great things about video calling is the ability to aim the camera at the subject matter; that new baby's blue eyes, the new work on your back deck, or the graphics for last months's sales figures. Video calls are a great way to show off those new golf clubs. In business situations, though, small bits of "theatre",  like that five o'clock shadow on your chin, or a tacky backdrop, can trump the verbal message, and work against you. Over the voice-only channel on the other hand, both sides of the conversation are freer to "illustrate" the chat with an idealized image of one another and their surroundings.
All in all, video can make us more powerful presenters, but it can make us vulnerable too. In all but the friendliest situations, it opens us up to a kind of scrutiny not possible over the phone. It brings us closer to a "public appearance", giving us more to stage-manage*. Just as we will still resort to letters or email to communicate particularly intimate or potentially reactive messages to loved ones, we may find ourselves preferring the phone for business calls when, for whatever reason, we want to present a smaller target. 

More to think about here. One wonders for example, with all of the buzz around Apple's new Facetime and Cisco's HD "telepresence", just how far the deep human need for discretion and distance will allow those media types to reach into our lives.
*Erving Goffman, in his classic "The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life" (1959) saw social life as a kind of theatre and "impression management" as one of the main tasks of the ego. The new work being done in unconscious processing shows the breadth and depth of this real-time computation is far greater than Goffman ever imagined.