The problem with videochats

These days some of us are spending more time videochatting with friends and family using one of the many platforms that are available. While they come closer to a semblance of physical contact than a phone call, they are still deficient in one area as Christina Cauterucci, who has been growing increasingly disenchanted with video gatherings, explains.

My internal alien has identified the lack of normal eye contact as one central pitfall of the video-chat experience. Talk to someone over FaceTime or Zoom, and they’ll never quite meet your eyes. They’ll spend the call looking at their screen, a few inches below or to the side of their camera, giving you the perpetual feeling of trying to get the attention of someone who’s ever so slightly preoccupied. Once, on a Skype call many years ago, a friend looked directly into her camera to say something heartfelt to me with the approximation of true eye contact. The effect was jarring: I didn’t fully realize that we hadn’t been making eye contact until she was suddenly staring straight into my soul from inside my screen. She was gazing at her computer’s eye, not mine, and could actually see less of my face than when she was looking at her screen, yet I felt strangely, uncomfortably exposed. When I recently tried it on a video call with my niece and nephew in an attempt to make them laugh, it gave me the unsettling impression of carrying on a conversation with HAL 9000, who’d been watching me watch the kids throughout our call. (FaceTime, perhaps even more eerily, has a new feature that attempts “eye contact correction” to make it appear you’re looking directly at each other, even when you’re not.)

It is instinctive for us to look at the person who is speaking to us and on video chats that would be the screen. It is not going to be easy to get in the habit of looking at the camera while keeping the other person in our peripheral field of view so that we can register their facial expressions which is, after all, the main benefit of having video chats in the first place. This is one case where having a small screen is an advantage, since that greatly reduces the separation between the camera and the center of the screen.

She also points to another problem.

This gets at another reason for video chat fatigue, the opposite of the eye contact problem: You have to look at each other’s faces the entire time! There are rarely natural breaks in conversation on Zoom, as there might be during a typical group dinner or coffee date, and it’s much harder to have a comfortable silence (or manage an uncomfortable one) when all parties are staring at one another nonstop. There’s no peeking out a window, no studying a menu, no people-watching, no helping out in the kitchen or asking about a host’s record collection. There’s only talking, and in a video chat with more than two participants, striking a normal conversational rhythm is nearly impossible. Add in differing internet lag times and the inability to hear multiple people speaking at once, and every group discussion becomes group “monologuing,” as Ashley Fetters termed it in the Atlantic. The patron saint of lively repartee rolls over in her grave with every “Wait, what was that?,” “Sorry, you go ahead,” and “Hang on, you just froze.”

She is right in her critiques but even with all its faults, I am gad that I live in a time when we have this option which is far better than no visual contact at all.

As with most things in life, one’s degree of satisfaction with something depends on what one is comparing it to. Yes, compared to physical presence, videochats are inferior. But compared to the communication channels that were available to us in the 19th century or even the 20th, they are so much better in so many ways. Perhaps being older and having grown up at a time when the options were much more limited, I am more grateful for what we have now and willing to overlook the deficiencies. That possibly explains why I am never in a hurry to adopt new gadgets that promise to do more than what I already have which I am usually happy with. My computer is seven years old and my phone is about ten years old, being a hand-me-down from my daughter. It also helps me be tolerant and indulgent about inadequacies and breakdowns in technology and helps me at least on some occasions to prevent myself from succumbing to complaining about what are sometimes referred to as ‘first world problems’, where people who are affluent whine about conditions that most of the people in the world would love to have but cannot even dream of doing so.

‘Weird Al’ Yankovich describes some more first world problems.


  1. johnson catman says

    Don’t worry, Mano. The damage that the present administration is doing to the US will soon turn the country into a third-world nation eliminating all those first-world problems.

  2. Holms says

    The eye contact thing has not hampered any of the online conversations I’ve had for D&D, but the audio one sure has. If only the various programs assigned each person separate audio channels…

    Is the video clip an example of what happens when Weird Al does not borrow someone else’s melody? Yikes.

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