SciLine interviewed: Dr. Joe Walther, a professor of communication and director of the Center for Information Technology and Society at the University of California, Santa Barbara. His research examines communication via computers and social media—the channels so dominant in these pandemic times—and their roles in personal relationships and groups. See the footage and transcript from the interview below, or select ‘Contents’ on the left to skip to specific questions.
What role do social relationships play in our lives, and why are they important?
JOE WALTHER: Well, there’s lots of different kinds of social relationships, and, of course, they fulfill a variety of different functions in our lives. I think we’re pretty well attuned to thinking about our close personal relationships with family, friends and loved ones. And of course, those provide affection and our close needs, the things that we need for the heart. But we also have relationships with our colleagues, the people with whom we work, the people with whom we associate in professional and in pedestrian interactions. And those are really important, too. Often in our workplace, those are the relationships that provide a sense of status for us, a sense of accomplishment, competence, efficacy. Those are the relationships that help us know that we have an impact on our environment. It lets us know that we’re active and effective people.
What aspects of personal relationships make them socially fulfilling?
JOE WALTHER: Personal relationships are close relationships. They give us a sense of history, and they give us a sense of individuality. In other words, the people who remember what we said last time, that happens in our personal relationships. Those are the ones that help us know that we are different than others. The people with whom we communicate in a very interactive sense, who bring up things that we have said before, done before that make us different from other people, that’s a personal relationship as opposed to a relationship based on groupings or group stereotypes. So for instance, when students come into my class, they know I’m a professor, and they relate to me on that basis. But after a long enough time in class, they know the things that I am likely to do, the things that I will find rewarding. They’ll remind me of things that I have said. And as I get to know them, I remember how they answered certain questions, who was the one who seems to be very responsive, who is there all the time.
And I refer to those things in our interaction with one another. And that gives people a sense that they’re real and important. They’re not just another anonymous member of the group.
What does the research suggest about how it affects us to communicate over virtual platforms rather than communicating in-person? What is lost in a relationship when we can’t have that in-person interaction at all anymore?
JOE WALTHER: Well, of course, it depends so much on what the different virtual platforms are that we’re using. And I think there’s a pretty common assumption that something is always lost when we communicate over some kind of electronic medium rather than face-to-face. And I don’t necessarily agree with that assumption, although it’s very easy to make. Because as humans, we’re all very attuned to seeing each other’s faces, hearing each other’s voices. And when we have that information available to us, we gravitate to it. There’s no question about that. But I think because of that predisposition we have to tune into nonverbal cues, we go along with a very intuitive assumption that when we don’t have all of those cues, then there’s something missing and something we’re not going to be able to do.
And I think that is somewhat of a myth. Because at the same time, while we think that and we articulate that, most of the students I know and many other people I know are communicating using texting more frequently than anything else. I get more email than I get face-to-face or video conversations throughout my day. And it doesn’t mean something is necessarily lacking. It depends on how we’re articulating ourselves, what we are more or less listening for in other people’s messages and how we respond to them. There is some theoretical work I’ve done and empirical research that followed it that shows there are cases when communicating by email and text actually leads to greater intimacy and liking than we are typically able to accomplish through face-to-face communication.
In terms of social connection, how do phone calls, video calls, texting, and social media compare to one another?
JOE WALTHER: Our intuition is the more like face-to-face, the better it’s got to be. And that’s not necessarily how it goes. And research is pretty clear about this. The voice is probably the most indicative and illustrative channel in terms of our emotion and our attitude, because, of course, voice is always accompanying words. And our words and our language, the content that that conveys is really quite, quite important. To have voice with that is a very, very powerful combination. Video is kind of overrated, even though it’s very attractive to us. As I mentioned, texting, mailing, commenting and social media with language – it’s sporadic, but it is often thoughtful. You know, we will write differently to strangers than we will write to people who we know. We adapt our language to the cues that are missing from conversation. We tend to do it very effectively. Media always make communication harder than face-to-face, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that media make communication worse than face-to-face. Humans adapt to whatever we have, and we do a pretty good job.
Are people especially drawn to videoconferencing, and how does using that platform affect our relationships?
JOE WALTHER: People are drawn to video conferencing because it feels the most like face-to-face communication, at least when it’s one-on-one video conferencing. When we’ve got a whole room full of Zoom participants, it feels different. But it’s useful in one-on-one because we’re able to have so many signals being exchanged that talk about our mood, our opinions, our affect and emotions. But if the conversation is not about our mood and our affect and attitudes and opinions, then video can be a distraction. Video reminds us that we have to worry about how we look, how we sound, whether we’re interrupting and so forth, whereas sometimes a phone call can be much more important.
Why do you think people may experience fatigue from videocalls during the pandemic?
JOE WALTHER: I do think people are prone to fatigue. And there could be a number of reasons for that. One is that we tend to use video calls in not the most effective or efficient way. A lot of the time, as has been the case in video conferencing for decades, we look at each other. We have the cameras trained on our faces. We’re looking at each other all the time. And that’s not how things go in face-to-face interaction. In face-to-face interaction with a group of people, we tend to look at whoever’s speaking. That person’s not right in front of us. You and I will speak now. But somebody else will speak; we’ll watch them. And somebody else will speak; we’ll watch them.
But in video conferencing, when the camera’s on all our faces, we’re staring at each other all the time. And we’re aware of that. And we’re looking at everybody all the time, and that takes work. That takes cognitive resources for us to pay attention to everyone. And we’re exposed all the time.
While people are more isolated during the pandemic, what kinds of communication strategies might make them feel less lonely?
JOE WALTHER: I would like to focus on the interactivity aspects of communication. I don’t think, in this case, video is better or phone is better than texting or emailing. I think the important thing in staying connected is how we engage one another and how we shape our conversation with one another. So by interactivity, I don’t mean that we each get to take turns having a conversation but when we have a conversation, that the things we say reference the things that the previous person has said – that I don’t just answer if you ask a question.
Of course I answer it, but as we continue to talk about things that I’m still cognizant of your question and trying to – and perhaps ask you, what was it you wanted to know? Why did you ask that question? Or is it because you’re feeling such and such a way? The conversation might then focus on your feeling. But our conversation, our messages need to reflect memory and incorporation of what has been said previously and what has been said prior to that. That’s when a conversation achieves what we call interactivity. Research shows that interactive conversations, rather than just what we call adjacency pairs – question, answer; statement, statement; statement, statement – that doesn’t achieve interactivity. Interactive conversations, research shows, are more involving, more satisfying and can be more intimate than these non-interactive conversations.