Videocommunication and Supporting Distributed Groups, from Formal Productivity to Informal Communication
This is a re-post of a class blog assignment I did for my grad studies course ‘Computer Supported Collaborative Work’ at the University of Victoria, Fall 2012.
I found that these five papers actually covered quite a lot of ground. I have tried to break down my observations into the following categories:
The last twenty years have been extremely productive in the evolution of telecommunications. I found that many of the technological challenges described in the papers have been alleviated, if not addressed by our own current technologies. Bandwidth, resolution, lag, and accessibility, while all improved, continue to be issues. Of particular note, I’d say that the issue of eye contact in particular is still a real barrier to videocommunications.
One common thread throughout all of the papers (except ‘A Typology of Tasks’) was the issue of presence: how do you establish a true, authentic rapport between physically dislocated participants. More specifically, how do you provide an environment where it ‘feels’ like everyone participating is actually present.
Many of the systems described in the papers clearly attempted to attain this. Many of the papers also made specific mention of the fact that initial physically co-located contact between group members seemed necessary before a real empathic connection to other participants was made. Meeting and working together only through intermediary media was not sufficient. After this initial contact, group members seemed to feel as though they ‘knew’ the other participants and had established a rapport that was not present before that initial contact was made.
There was also the repeated assertion that video alone was not sufficient to solve all tasks. Physically meeting face-to-face, particularly for tasks involving conceptual or behavioural conflict resolution, still appears necessary.
Formal vs Informal Interactions
There was also a concentrated effort to achieve a level of informal communication between distributed group members, often simply in the form of ‘awareness’ of the other distributed group members’ activities. While recognized as important to the cohesiveness of distributed organizations, actual implementation of natural and spontaneous casual interaction seemed difficult to attain. Awareness of office politics, gossip, and what I would suggest are ‘inside jokes’ were not naturally translated through the systems more easily accepted for formal and purely productive purposes.
The technical issues mentioned above were a major barrier to achieving success in this realm. However, the ability of the Palo Alto and Portland Xerox groups to adopt new videoconferencing social protocols in a relatively short period of time despite these barriers would indicate that the technology is not the only contributing factor. Integration, and privacy also play major factors, but I would suggest that presence is the key missing element.
Importance of Audio vs Video
An aspect of telecommunications that I found particularly fascinating was the fact that audio communication seemed to be more important that video communication. This was exemplified by participants in the Xerox groups naturally orienting themselves to the speaker instead of to the visual representation of that speaker. This would seem to indicate, generally speaking, that visual body language cues augment audio communication instead of audio communication augmenting visual cues.
Coincidentally, just as I was thinking about the implications of this, I happened to look outside the library window to a public bench where a man and a woman sat. The woman had crossed her legs away from the man, and her arms were crossed across her chest. She wasn’t looking at him, but instead, she looked straight ahead at a spot on the ground in front of her. Her body language clearly indicated that she was upset. By the man’s body language, he seemed to be uncomfortably trying to explain something to her. I continued reading my papers for a while and when I glanced out the window for a second time, the woman was crying. My previous interpretation of the situation, that the woman was becoming upset, was clearly correct, however, I only knew that she was upset, not why.
Instead, if I heard their words (providing they spoke English), but not actually seen them, it is very likely that I would have a much better understanding of exactly why she was upset. The tone and inflection of their voices would convey additional valuable information as well. (There are many different ways to say “I’m fine.”)
Generally speaking, at this point, purely Audio communication appears to carry more information than purely visual communication. (Clearly this would not be the case for people who primarily receive human communication visually.)
Integration and low cost to user are ways to facilitate the use of telecommunications. Proximity to users and integration into their daily work lives and environment are both key factors to the success of the distributed system.
I would suggest that the actual need for such a telecommunications system also contributes to the success of the system. For example, the Palo Alto and Portland Xerox groups actually had need of such a system to accomplish tasks and communicate regularly with colleagues directly involved in projects. Therefore, they invested the time and resources to integrate the system as efficiently as possible into their daily work lives. They even evolved the system as required over time.
There was an emphasis on equality and unity between the two sites, even going so far as to make the physical characteristics of the two sites as similar as possible. Moreover, the groups themselves tried to function as a single working unit. They deliberately adapted their behavior to do so.
The incidence of social collisions was rampant throughout the systems in these papers. Inability to make eye contact, and the impact of the systems on other social conventions was noted in several cases. It seems as though the authors believe that many of the social collisions can be corrected through improved technology, but I believe that they can only be alleviated.
Instead of expecting seamless face-to-face interactions, which I don’t think we will ever achieve in mediated technology, a new set of social protocols should be developed as intermediary media are adopted. It would seem that this was what naturally occurred with the Xerox groups.
As these new social protocols are adopted (like for texting, for example), spontaneous casual communication will become more natural and accepted. I believe that the systems that minimize user cost and focus on achieving this level of sustained casual communication will be the ones that ultimately succeed over the long term.
Settings supporting varying degrees of accessibility, solitude, and privacy are an important feature acknowledged by many of the papers. Reciprocity, that is, “if they can see me, I can see them” is also a key component of the accepted use of a system. People must feel safe using a system. If everybody has equal accessibility to everyone else, then people feel safe. However, if one or more people are allowed to watch without the others knowing about it, privacy violations ensue. The door is open for this abuse of technology and, frankly, the observations of the Porthole system absolutely creeped me out. I would like to draw the class’ attention to a recent privacy violation case in the US (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robbins_v._Lower_Merion_School_District).
I found the fact that many participants in the papers commented that they trusted their colleagues to respect their privacy very encouraging.
Shared Work Items
Many of the problems of the inability to share work items in the papers has been alleviated. The ability for many people to collaborate on the same item at the same time is being bridged, particularly in simple productivity, like in Google Docs. Combine it with Skype and I think you have a pretty effective collaborative work system for simple projects. I certainly think that we will continue to see this evolve in the future, particularly through cloud computing systems.
Being There: The Promise of Multimedia Communications – David Brittan
Experiences in an Exploratory Distributed Organization – Mark J. Abel
Portholes: Supporting Awareness in a Distributed Work Group – Paul Dourish, Sara Bly
Evaluating Video as a Technology of Informal Communication – Robert S. Fish, Robert E. Kraut, Robert W. Root
The VideoWindow System in Informal Communications – Robert S. Fish, Robert E. Kraut, Barbara L. Chalfonte