As we continue to engage in rigid social distancing, more people than ever before are relying on digital technologies for both work and personal communication. While platforms like Zoom have become a staple of remote working and learning, many of us are replacing in-person socializing with FaceTime, Netflix Party, Google Hangouts and Discord.
Concerns over privacy and information protection have already been raised by Zoom users. There have been reports of hacked meetings and thousands of Zoom accounts were sold on the Dark Web. However, even with privacy concerns addressed, digital communication continues to fall short.
As researchers interested in digital health and newly emerging technologies, we are concerned with how these new technologies can improve and alter relationships with ourselves and those around us.
On-screen eye contact
Psychology research shows that in group settings, eye contact divulges a wealth of information. As a listener, maintaining direct eye contact with a speaker signifies interest and attention. On the other hand, as a speaker, noticing a lack of eye contact signals that we have lost the interest of our listeners. Eye contact is a hard-wired social cue that provides confirmation that listeners are paying attention to us as we speak.
However, this cue can often be missing in digital communication. While you can see the faces of your colleagues onscreen, they are looking at your face on their screen, and not into the camera. Direct eye contact is impossible via current digital hardware. Sometimes, the faces you’re speaking to aren’t visible at all and there is no guarantee that they are looking at you or even listening to what you’re saying. Even features that bring the speaker to centre screen suffer the same pitfalls of being unable to facilitate direct eye contact.
Digital body language
Body language and gestures such as crossing arms, shuffling feet or fidgeting provide cues as to whether we are engaged in conversation, ready to leave or being sympathetic, among others. This form of non-verbal communication is a valuable contribution to both professional and personal communication. It can be used to highlight and strengthen points, compliment what you are already saying or convey additional information.
One of the reasons why non-verbal cues are seemingly missing in digital communication is that they have to exist in material space whereas digital communication is flat. It is impossible to reach out touch someone over FaceTime or to lean in or out of a conversation. While digital communication platforms can get our message across, the message lacks the various complex hues of what communication can be.
Microexpressions are facial expressions that often occur without our knowing. While they often occur in response to what is being said they are unconscious rather than deliberate reactions, designed to match the tone of the conversation. While digitally communicating, microexpressions can be lost when our internet connection lags or our phone or laptop cameras aren’t the highest quality.
Since our brains pick up and process microexpressions faster than we can consciously understand them, we are provided with a seemingly consistent stream of information that can help us direct the flow of conversation. When that stream is broken, we are forced to consciously engage and process facial expressions, a task that previously was automatic. This can lead to fatigue or misunderstandings. Most common of these is the inability to interject in conversation at the right time.
Whereas before, microexpressions could signal when the speaker was finished, now we are forced to guess. Almost everyone can relate to a messy scenario where people talk over one another, unable to interject at the right time.
Virtual coffee dates
While digital communication has proven to be integral during the time of social distancing, its shortcomings are more evident than ever. Human communication is complex and dynamic, and effective execution requires the harmonious integration of both verbal and non-verbal components. So while FaceTime may currently act as a timely substitute to coffee dates with our friends and family, it is very unlikely that digital communication will come to replace its in-person predecessor.
While we can spend the same amount of time talking to our friends and family, the amount of information we are conveying is limited by the two-dimensional images on our laptop and phone screens. As cameras and microphones become more sensitive, our digital communication too can improve drastically. But it won’t be replacing a good, old-fashioned hug any time soon.