- October
Posted By : Adrian Chan
Live video chats — if next new thing, what social design issues?

It’s becoming increasingly clear to me (perhaps I’m slow) that live video chat will be among the next new things to reshape the social web experience. Friend and colleague Bernard Moon brought this to my attention with a post in readwriteweb yesterday. But it’s been on the margins for years. Some innovations just take a while.

Live video chat is not for everyone. It’s time-consuming. It’s interruptive. It’s somewhat exposing (depends what you’re doing at the time). It’s more place and location sensitive than IM or text chat (will be vidchatting in cafes soon? I rather hope not). And of course it has a greater number of technical issues: latency, bandwidth, audio, notifications, and so on.

But video has some clear advantages over text and IM chat. It is far richer and passes through both the face and the look. It’s a communication form of higher commitment — unless deception is part of your job, lying is just simply harder to do in live video than text chat. Live video chat handles etiquette better than text, being both infinitely faster at supplying the little ceremonial exchanges of interaction and more effectively too. People are impacted more by these kinds of live experiences than they are a written format.

There are some very powerful use cases for live video chat. Any situation that involves obtaining expert consultation, visual illustration (you don’t need to share screens — just hold up a sketch on a sheet of paper!), evidence (insurance, healthcare), how tos, you name it. There is no shortage of use cases that involve instruction/learning and even task coordination that would benefit from live video (a hat cam bossman on the factory floor?).

If extremely effective, then, at the communication end of things, what else might change with live video? Well, live video rather cuts right to the heart of any meta communicative functions of social. This is why so few conventional dating sites yet use video. It’s just too rich, too close, and too soon. Some interactions benefit from the use of symbolic gestures and interactions that warm a couple or group of people into more committed interactions. Live video feels like it creates more of a commitment to the other person because it does. For the period of time one is live on video, leaving the interaction is not an option. (Chatroulette disproves this but then chatroulette was a novelty. Meaning it demonstrated that we’re a) not there yet but b) certainly will get there.)

So video won’t be an enhancement to many current online social practices until or unless it is dropped into new contexts of interaction. Just as we still text, when we could phone. Or just as we “like,” when we could comment. The low commitment of many online social interactions in fact serves a purpose — to reduce the risk of rejection, ignoring, disinterest, and so on. Real life face to face situations are provisioned with many tacit rituals by which people acknowledge each other without committing to interact. (Known as “civil inattention.”)

Online social is practically an architectural system of exactly these kinds of aids — protecting people from the uncertainties of personal and social interactions. Yes, this changes as people are in general more comfortable with the medium. But no society or culture lives in or wants full transparency. Too many social practices are designed to make use of nuances and subtleties of interaction for the simple reason that playing them competently is in itself rewarding.

One could say much more on this but enough for now. This will be an interesting area to dig into more deeply, as realtime and live continue to shape social tools and experiences.

Leave a Reply