An unusual business

XXVII.4 July - August 2020
Page: 9
Digital Citation

Insights from videochat research in the context of Covid-19

Danielle Lottridge

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Covid-19 has made videochat even more important than ever, with usage of Zoom and apps like Houseparty soaring. While at Yahoo Inc., my colleagues and I spent a few years studying how teenagers interact online. In this short piece, I'll share insights from our research that are relevant to today's reality of online interaction under lockdown.

You can influence others' videochat attentiveness with your own behavior. Our research shows teens respond to each other's signals for attentiveness. Looking away from the screen or pausing the video signaled a reduction in attention, while asking questions and calling out signaled an increase in attention; videochat partners matched that signaled attention level [1]. What this means is your behavior during videochat can influence others. You can signal to others that the videochat will be for co-presence (while you each do other things), or you can rally others to pay attention by signaling your full attention visually and aurally (and perhaps even suggest ending the meeting early if you get through your agenda!)

Have empathy for context switches—they may be more disruptive for others than for you. Many people are working from home and juggling multiple roles, both professional and personal. Sometimes context "bursts" into videochat, especially in the form of sudden noise like dogs barking or a family member calling out, which we found was embarrassing for some teens caught within context overlaps [1]. You can use these bursts as reminders to be understanding and supportive of your colleagues' other commitments. This may be especially relevant for parents, but anybody's life can spill in front of the camera!

Videochat can support shifts from focused interaction to social co-presence, and there's something great about that. Our research found that teens regularly engaged in videochat that included long periods of silence or focus elsewhere, such as scrolling social media feeds or playing games, amid spontaneous bouts of conversation [1]. When people are vulnerable to social isolation, we encourage you to try idly hanging out on videochat without actively talking or trying to entertain.


Feeling lonely? Consider livestreaming for a new form of social co-presence. Unlike videochat, which tends to be intimate and by invitation, livestreaming has more of an open-door policy, welcoming anybody to watch. Our project on teens' livestreaming found they used it for social co-presence [2]. They chose livestreaming because they could start it any time without having to rely on or wait for others to join the call. There are privacy concerns, but two ways that teens deal with that is to vet incoming participants or to aim the camera at an activity, such as cooking, rather than having the camera on themselves.

I wish everyone health and safety during this difficult time and hope that these tips are useful in thinking about new ways to use technology to interact with your communities and colleagues.

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1. Suh, M., Bentley, F., and Lottridge, D. "It's kind of boring looking at just the face": How teens multitask during mobile videochat. Proc. of the ACM on Human-Computer Interaction 2 (CSCW) (2018), 1–23.

2. Lottridge, D., Bentley, F., Wheeler, M., Lee, J., Cheung, J., Ong, K., and Rowley, C. Third-wave livestreaming: Teens' long form selfie. Proc. of the 19th International Conference on Human-Computer Interaction with Mobile Devices and Services. ACM, New York, 2017, 1–12.

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Danielle Lottridge is a senior lecturer in the School of Computer Science at the University of Auckland. She completed a Ph.D. in human factors engineering at the University of Toronto before migrating south to do a postdoc at Stanford University in California. She worked in the Silicon Valley tech industry for several years before moving to New Zealand and into her current position. [email protected]

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