Before the pandemic, roughly two-thirds of all social interactions were face-to-face. Not anymore. Those of us following the rules of social distancing (hope that’s everyone) still talk in person with the people we live with and maybe with a friend or two we have allowed into our pods. There is the occasional chat with the cashier at the grocery store. Most everything else—work conversation, book clubs, dinner parties, joking around at the gym—has disappeared or moved online. That has left nearly all of us yearning for more social connection.
Fortunately, in a well-timed piece of academic publishing, Jeffrey Hall, a professor of communication studies at the University of Kansas, has just released a book called Relating Through Technology (Cambridge University Press), summing up the latest research on what we know about sustaining a healthy and happy social life through technology.
“We don’t have a lot of information about how to build good practices around keeping our relationships nourished through technology,” Hall says. In part, that is because many researchers focus on technology or on relationships while very few people study both. And a lot of previous work has focused on the potential problems of technology use and not the ways it might be helpful. Hall aims to change that. (I wrote about his previous research into the amount of hours it takes to make a friend here.)
Relationships have long been conducted through a variety of means—in academic-speak they have always been “multimodal.” That used to mean that we connected face-to-face, over the phone, and by writing letters to one another. Now we’ve added email, social media, texting, video conference calls and even gaming. The surfeit of options isn’t necessarily a bad thing. One of the important tenets to come out of recent research into social media is that the more channels of connection we use to check in with a friend, the stronger that relationship is going to be.
When Covid-19 arrived, suddenly technology was all we had. Use of videoconferencing technology exploded. Zoom, a previously little-known software, went from a total of 10 million daily meeting participants in December 2019 to 300 million in April 2020 (Those are not 300 million individual users. If you had five Zoom calls in one day, you count five times.)
So did phone use. According to the New York Times, in April, Verizon reported carrying more than 800 million wireless calls a day during the week, which is double what they usually have on Mother’s Day, one of the busiest phone days of the year.
Hall has some pre-pandemic data comparing the use of video chat versus other ways of connecting, as well as a newer study of Americans sheltering in place in the month of May. Much of his research involves experience sampling in which he checks in with people multiple times a day. For instance, in one study, he asked people to identify the modality they used the last time they had an interaction—phone, text, Skype etc. Participants also named the person with whom they were communicating and then reported on their sense of connection and how much energy the interaction had required.
“Compared to face to face, texting and using social media, energy use during a Zoom call is higher. It was more intense than these other [modes],” Hall says. Interestingly, video calls also seemed to heighten not lessen loneliness. “People said, after the fact, that they felt lonely, less connected [on video chat].” Those findings align with previous work on long-distance relationships by others in which people reported relying on long video calls to stay in touch, but said it was a reminder “of how far away that person was and how long it would be until they got to hold them again,” Hall says.
Zoom fatigue, Hall argues now, is real. “Zoom is exhausting and lonely because you have to be so much more attentive and so much more aware of what’s going on than you do on phone calls.” If you haven’t turned off your own camera, you are also watching yourself speak, which can be arousing and disconcerting. The blips, delays and cut off sentences also create confusion. Much more exploration needs to be done, but he says, “maybe this isn’t the solution to our problems that we thought it might have been.” Phone calls, by comparison, are less demanding. “You can be in your own space. You can take a walk, make dinner,” Hall says.
Choosing a mode of connection should depend on what you need to say. For basic information sharing, it doesn’t seem to make much difference how you interact. “But when you talk about something that’s more substantial or something that requires more nuance or playfulness, the different modes convey a different level of benefit,” Hall says. Texting works for simple messages. People are more likely to get more out of a phone call when they have more complicated or rich things to talk about or when they just want to joke around.
Hall has three pieces of advice for improving your relationships in this moment:
Tighten the circle of people you communicate with. In technology as in life, we have layers of intimacy. “It’s not the case that more is better,” Hall says. “We can only maintain so many relationships at a time.”
Build communication into your routines. “Have something on the calendar that you do repeatedly, make it a part of what’s on your daily or weekly or monthly to do list,” Hall says.
Strengthen the signal. In other words, use the modes of connection that make you feel most, well, connected, and think about the content of your interactions.
“We’re still human beings who need each other,” Hall says. “We’re going to use technology to recreate the things that we need.”
Copyright: Lydia Denworth, 2020