I don’t believe in Zoom fatigue. HOWEVER…

21.37, Tuesday 29 Mar 2022

I’m sceptical about “Zoom fatigue,” which gets talked about a bunch, this idea that you get fatigued from spending a ton of time over the day on video calls.

OR RATHER what I mean is, yes, I do indeed get fatigued from a day of video calls (evidence: how I right now), but no, I don’t think it’s down to number of hours on calls specially.

My guess is that it’s about repeated and rapid changing social context.

You’re in a high bandwidth interaction (full video, full audio, conversational turn-taking, eye contact), then the call ends and you’re on your own in your room. Then high bandwidth interaction, then on your own, then high bandwidth interaction, then etc.

It’s not Zoom fatigue, it’s Zoom whiplash.

It’s a hunch. I can’t prove this.

The trick to get around this is to move smoothly up and down the gradient of social interaction intensity, never dropping below a basic floor of presence: the sense that there are other people in the same place as you.

Instead of having two modes, “in a call” and “on my own,” we need to think about multiple ways of being together which, minimally, could be:

  • In a video call
  • In an anteroom to a video call, hearing the sound of others
  • In a doc together
  • On my desktop but with the sense that colleagues are around

And the job of the designer is to ensure that their software ensures the existence of these different contexts, instead of having the binary on-a-call/not-on-a-call, and to design the transitions between them.

(I posted in January about lessons from architecture for the metaverse, drawing from A Pattern Language by Christopher Alexander, and that was specially about how to design this kind of smooth social gradient.)

Presence? The solution to social context whiplash.

As a baseline, ensure that the user always has a sense that other people are around. That’s all presence is.

If you have presence as a “default” then you can move up and down the social gradient quite happily.

It’s pretty easy to create a sense of presence in software:

  • Slack does it by giving you a list of your colleagues who are online, with a little green dot by whoever is active.
  • Figma does it by having moving multiplayer cursors on every webpage.

It has to be live.

HOWEVER, in solving the whiplash problem by insisting on a baseline of presence, we’ve introduced a whole new problem: being around other people is exhausting.

Being on display is exhausting! What’s at the root of that? Another hunch…

When you have “presence” as a software feature, there’s a vague sense of being monitored. You can never escape the idea that other people can tell whether you are active at your computer or not. Some people care about this more, others are able to care about it less, but it’s there none-the-less.

What happens is that the part of our simian brains that looks after “presentation of self” (per Goffman) kicks in. That’s work. The self-governing of how one is perceived by others.

Not quite panoptic but sousveilled – the act of watching one-another rather than surveillance from above.

So you end up being ever so slightly aware that other people can tell whether you’re active on your computer or not. Whereas, in the office, people can tell that you’re working by the view of you concentrating - whether hunched over a sketchbook or staring preoccupied at the ceiling - when you’re remote, it’s totally equivalent whether you are not moving your cursor because you’re thinking harder than you ever have… or if you’ve snuck off down the shops. Which means you have to care about it. This creates a unnamed paranoia and incentivises the performance of work rather than work itself.

I.E. IN A NUTSHELL: presence can be exhausting.

Introduced in 2011, the US military has a drone surveillance technology for monitoring motion over an entire city. The project is named Gorgon Stare (Wikipedia).

And it’s an incredible name, right? Because the effect of the panoptic gaze on the city is to freeze it - if you don’t want to be seen then don’t move - what the drone’s eye, like the eye of Medusa (a Gorgon), is to turn people to stone.

So there a just a touch of telepresence that I feel like that, like 0.1% as much but still.

Like: I’m unable to type in a Google Doc if other people are there. Do you get that? I end up writing in another doc and copy-and-pasting in the new iteration. It’s a fear! Literally petrifaction/petrifying. The Gorgon Stare of Anonymous Goose lurking up there in the top right of the browser viewport.

PREVIOUSLY: Freud’s whole thing about Medusa was that individual wasn’t being turned to stone by Medusa, but instead making a decision to become stone in a personal response, escaping their own terror of castration. To do with Medusa’s head snakes resembling – look, as previously discussed, go read. I would love to know what Freud would have made of Google Docs.

I love this cascade of design problems/solutions/problems.

Zoom fatigue is really Zoom whiplash so introduce presence.

Presence is itself exhausting. And so…?

What’s the best way to personally feel present, online, but without the knock-on micro effects of panoptic sousveillance to everyone else on your presence list? One to figure out.

I suspect this problem can be solved by having lots of different places that you can be present in.

Instead of Slack showing everyone who is online (present) right now, it should show who is online just in the channel I happen to have open. That way I get the benefit of feeling like there are people around me, but without the concern that other people might think I’m lazy if I take 30 minutes away from my computer to do some hard thinking. I have plausible deniability. As far as anyone else is concerned, I may just be in another room.

And that’s why social software should always have multiple rooms that you move between.

The opposite of fatigue is immersion.

When Ze Frank invented the genre of personal web videos - video blogging - back in 2006 (which I wrote about here) he was absolutely insistent that the presenter had to stare directly into the camera. He went as far as editing out his blinks.

he advises would-be vloggers not to blink because when you blink, “that’s one less connection made” with viewers.

I have a similar feeling towards social software.

When you have a video call, you feel immersed in the social context.

When you drop back to a space without any kind of social context, not even presence, your desktop, it breaks immersion. Blink.

But when your software makes a promise to never drop the social context below the presence baseline, you never stutter immersion, and it just builds and builds and builds as you move around.

That’s what I’m finding in the day job anyhow. (We’re building a platform for being social online, with an architectural approach and multiple “spaces” that you move between. There’s nothing special going on with the tech, it’s just multiplayer webpages, no rocket science, but gosh it works – a kind of lo-fi metaverse.)


Why did the US military develop Gorgon Stare? Because of Will Smith.

In Enemy of the State there’s an imagined technology, a satellite that can watch people on the ground across vast areas. This was of course pure fantasy at the time. An engineer who works for the government saw the film in a theater and thought it would be quite incredible if the government could actually do that. That seed of inspiration precipitated a whole series of events and development projects that culminated with Gorgon Stare about ten years later. It took a while, but during that period the rate at which camera technology got more powerful outpaced Moore’s law, which predicts the rate at which computer chips become more powerful. It was this phenomenal jump in capability in a very short period of time, all driven from an initial seed of inspiration, a 1998 Will Smith blockbuster.

My friend Mark H tells me that Enemy of the State is an unofficial sequel to Francis Ford Coppola’s The Conversation (1974), Gene Hackman’s character being the same but with a different name because they couldn’t sort out the rights. The Conversation being notable for its remarkable sound and additionally distinctive camera-work from above to visually depict the narratively essential long-range sound monitoring equipment, a visual trope that was naturally extrapolated in Enemy of the State to its unreal-but-then-becoming-real satellite viewpoint. An extraordinary conceptual ancestry.

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