The Dark Side of Video Conferencing

While video calling is great in  many ways (see Top 10 Reasons To Use Videoconferencing), it’s not a replacement for face-to-face meetings.  First impressions do count, and if you aren’t careful, you  could be headed for a video calling wipeout.  Just look at the effect of video (i.e.,  television) on Nixon’s bid for the presidency in 1960.  It cost Nixon the election because no one at that time understood the visual impact of the then new television medium, and subsequently he  refused to appear on televised debates  (Webley 2010).

So what are some issues to beware of in video conferencing?  As I mentioned  earlier, first impressions count, and unfortunately, delays and distortions caused by technology glitches are often perceived as flaws in the person rather than flaws in the technology (Chen 2003).  Although video conferencing technology has vastly improved over the last 50 years, network delays and video distortion are still facts of life and need to be anticipated.

Previous research clearly established the importance of audio over video in communication.  Audio delays in particular can be the kiss of death when trying to make a good impression.  For example,  Kitawaki, et al., (1993) found that delayed audio can cause a speaker to be viewed as “slow” or, as the London  Economist (1969) so delicately put it in the days before political correctness,  it’s like “talking to a mentally defective foreigner” (Egido 1988, p. 15).   Ruhleder & Jordan (2001) explored a host of misinterpretations caused by delays in the split second timing needed to smoothly take turns during a discussion and repair mishearings.  These unintentional pauses can, at worst, lead to people being perceived as incompetent, socially awkward, or having a negative attitude.  At best, they’re a nuisance to be patiently borne.  This is not such a big deal when working with people you know, but it slows down the already difficult process of building trust with people across distances.  Finally, Isaacs & Tang (1993) found that more delay meant fewer interruptions and fewer speaker changes, which meant fewer interactions, and thus, lower-quality collaboration.

Furthermore, while people are more willing to tolerate video problems than audio problems, you shouldn’t push your luck.  Even though we like to make fun of bad movie dubbings, research tells us that out-of-sync lips and audio makes you come  across as being less trustworthy and less believable (Reeves and Nass 1996).

There is also the problem of eye contact which is often difficult to achieve in video conferencing due to limitations in webcam positioning.  Huang, et al., (2002) found that whether the camera angle makes you look taller or shorter can also impact your power and influence in negotiations.

Lastly, one study even found that some people got cases of “video aversion” or “video anxiety” when they saw themselves in a video conference.  It caused high negative feelings which were sometimes transferred to the service providing the conference (Wegge 2006).  It’s probably safe to assume that video conferencing won’t be on their list of things-to-do in the near future.

In spite of these nontrivial issues, video conferencing is a growing trend.  Just as television is an important media tool even though Nixon crashed and burned on his first televised debate, video conferencing technology is also becoming an indispensable tool in today’s global economy.

References:

1.  Chen, M. 2003. Conveying conversational cues through video. Dissertation, Stanford  University.

2.  Egido, C. 1988. Video Conferencing as a Technology to Support Group Work: A Review  of its Failures.  In Proc. of CSCW 1988: 13-24.

3.   Huang, W., Olsen, J.S. & Olsen, G.M. 2002.  Camera angle affects dominance in  video-mediated communication.  In Proc. of CHI’02 extended abstracts on Human  Factors in computing systems, 716-717, NY: ACM Press.

4.  Kitawaki, K., Kurita, T. & Itoh, K. 1991. Effects of Delay on Speech Quality. NTT  Review 3: 88-94.

5.  Reeves, B. and Nass., C., 1996. The Media Equation : How People Treat Computers,  Television, and New Media like Real People and Places. University of Chicago  Press.

6.  Ruhleder, K. & Jordan, B. 2001. Co-constructing non-mutual realities:  Delaygenerated trouble n distributed interaction. Computer Supported Cooperative  Work, 10, 113-138.

7.  Tang, J., & Isaacs, E. (1993). Why do users like video? Studies of multimedia-supported collaboration. Computer Supported Cooperative Work, 1, 163-193.

8.  Webley, K. 2010.  How the Nixon-Kennedy debate changed the world.  Time Magazine,  September 23. Accessed January 27, 2011. http://www.time.com/time/nation/article/0,8599,2021078,00.html

9.  Wegge, J. 2006. Communication via Videoconference: Emotional and Cognitive  Consequences of Affective Personality Dispositions, Seeing One’s Own Picture, and  Disturbing Events. Human-Computer Interaction, Vol. 21, No. 3: 273-318.

Comments ( 3 )
  • milton
    MrPete says:

    Good list, Milton!
    A suggested additional dimension of challenge in videoconferencing: call setup. To make it more challenging, consider the typical dispersed leadership team (think: board) composed of people with widely varying levels of technical experience, different computer platforms, and diverse age and cultural backgrounds.

    Such a group is not making video calls every day. Yet they typically expect the technology to “just work” and thus are tempted to assume it should take little or no planning or preparation to successfully participate in a video call.

    The result: one or more participants often have inadequate equipment (non-functional webcam, speaker/mic not properly setup for multi-party conferencing, or an incompatible computer.) Their network and/or location may not have sufficient bandwidth for the connection… particularly if Tommy’s bedroom computer upstairs is streaming bit-torrent files to several friends!

    The net effect in our experience: typically 15 minutes or more wasted at the start of each and every board meeting. It gets even worse for dispersed international teams. We’ve seen (tech-savvy!) international groups struggle for half an hour or more to ensure all key participants are linked on an audio web-based conference call!

    A variety of factors contribute to these challenges… yet typically it is the software/service provider that gets dinged for providing a bad experience.

    [Hmmm… an idea emerges even as I write: we have sometimes found MTR a valuable tool for deciphering what exactly is the issue for bad links. A very basic/visual version of this would be a valuable status/diagnostic tool in VSee! Consider red/yellow/green light delay indicators for each participant, in a 2×3 matrix: 2=Up/Download, 3=Local/Internet/Far End. Might be a challenge to simplify that far yet oh-so-useful!]

  • milton
    Milton says:

    You just hit on an issue I plan to talk about in a future blog article. You’re completely right. Setting up for a successful videoconference takes an awful lot of foresight and planning, which many people/companies don’t realize and don’t plan for. If I didn’t say it before, I should probably emphasize, you really always ought to plan for technical issues (like having a backup plan) because you never know what will happen.

    As for tech-savvy companies blaming software/service provider, I guess it wouldn’t look too good if you’re trying to sell technology when you can’t even get it to work right 😛

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