Videoconferencing: The Kid On A Corner

With all the research and effort put into recreating Star Trek fantasies of communicating via life-like screen images, you’d think people would be more enthusiastic about actually using the amazing videoconferencing technologies out there today!  But surprisingly, as mentioned in an earlier post, videoconferencing tools have been painfully slow to gain popularity in the workplace.  Today, I’d like to take a closer look at some of those possible reasons.

Sociologists Allan and Thorns (2009) have done a nice job listing previous research investigating the problem.*  Some studies found that videoconferencing was seen as too inconvenient, expensive, unreliable, or unnecessary.  Other studies discussed the difficulties of reproducing contexts, social cues, social influences, and other important face-to-face interactions.  Still others examined the ways organizations convince people to use these media-rich technologies.

Given the wide range of possibilities, an interesting question to ask at this point might be:  Is this a problem of technology or a problem of human psychology?  Literature suggests that it’s probably a bit of both.  Allan and Thorns (2009) concluded that people spent too much time making the technology better and not enough making it user-friendly.  In a rephrase of Google’s mantra, they recommend that “People will more readily adopt technologies which are simple to operate even if it means compromising some applications and features” (449).  For example, email is probably the least communicative in terms of media richness—no sound, no visual, no immediate feedback—and yet, various surveys tell us it’s still the most preferred method of communication (Allan 2009; Success Magazine 2009).  I won’t get into why, but if you’re interested, Todd Smith has a pretty down-to-earth take on it.

Now getting back to the original question—why aren’t more people using videoconferencing?  After all, it is 2011 and there are a bazillion of these convenient, easy-to-use, secure, relatively low-bandwidth desktop and web videoconferencing tools like Skype, Cisco, Polycom, Tandberg, just to name a few, and of course, my personal favorite—VSee.  So why aren’t people crawling over each other to use them like the iPhone or iPad?  Allan’s 2009 study of factors affecting e-conferencing uptake for collaborative research argues that technology on its own cannot drive use, but rather “the ethos, the culture, the colleagues, the tools…in that order” (7).

I had to chew on this idea of culture first a bit, but it makes sense when I think about the American auto industry.  Considering traffic congestion, the rising cost of gas, dwindling resources, rocky relationships with oil-rich countries, you would think that people would have every reason to want to buy low cost, fuel-efficient, compact cars, or just bike to work, but the American car culture is so strong that SUV’s, V6 and V8 engines, and pick-up trucks are still doing good business.  It wasn’t really until gas went to $4 a gallon that people even began to blink.

So one perspective is even if the tools are there—which they are—video conferencing isn’t going to be the wave of the future until people are convinced they *need* to use VC (ethos), their work environment pushes them to use it (culture), and their contacts all want to use it, too (colleagues).


1.  Allan, & Thorns.  Being face to face: A state of mind or technological design. In B. Whitworth & A. (de) Moor (Eds.), Handbook of Research on Socio Technical Designing and Social Networking Systems, 2009, pp. 440-454. Hershey PA: IGI Global Publications.

2.  Allan. Sustainable collaborative research activities: A system’s approach to the implementation of e-conferencing for lower carbon footprint.  Postdoctoral project, 2009. University of Canterbury, New Zealand.

Related Articles:

Will Videoconferencing Replace the Telephone? from PC World

Video Conferencing: Why Isn’t It More Successful from Datamation

* studies listed by Allan & Thorns (2009)
user relationship and technology
– Frost & Sullivan 2005
– Hirsh, Sellen, & Brokopp 2005
– J. Sankar 2006
– M. Vilaboy 2007
social and media theory
– Baltes, Dickson, Sherman, Bauer, & LaGanke 2002
– Biocca, Harms, & Burgoon 2003
– Daft & Lengel 1986
– Dennis & Valacich 1999
– E. Goffman 1963
– Short, Williams & Christie 1976
– Wainfan & Davis 2004
innovation diffusion
– A. H. Molina 1997
– Voss, Mascord, Fraser, Jirotka, Procter, Halfpenny, Fergusson, Atkinson, Dunn, Blanke, Hughes, & Anderson 2007

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