Our Video Chatting New Normal

Odds are, over the last two months or so, you’ve Zoomed, Skyped, FaceTimed, Webexed, Housepartied or Hangout-ed—likely more times than your combined lifetime total of video chatting. And when you aren’t video chatting, you’re watching someone else video chatting on newscasts, charity events, and daytime or late-night talk shows.

The recent flurry of one-on-one or group video chatting has exposed what we didn’t understand about video chatting, including that our current video chatting fever isn’t merely a temporary COVID-19 symptom.

First, we didn’t realize that, combined with the isolation surge in video streaming and chilling, what a strain on the internet and video distribution channels in general all this live video streaming has been and will continue to be.

From a social behavior POV, we’ve discovered:

  • We don’t know what to wear while video chatting.
  • We don’t know how to act when we aren’t talking.
  • What’s behind us in the background is important.
  • Webcam angles—and how to show our face—are also difficult.
  • Lighting (and from what direction) is key.

It’s also posed questions like: Do we need earphones/buds and mics to cut down on room echo? If so, what kind? Wired or wireless? (And Apple’s AirPods really look stupid!) And should we apply makeup or even wear pants? Plus, we all need haircuts, but I digress…

We have also discovered that we need a higher resolution webcam, and how important processing speed, HD or 4K resolution, and more efficient video codecs are. But most importantly, all these technical, aesthetic and behavioral factors signal the arrival of video chatting as a new, primary communications channel.

The Early Adopter-to-Grandma Cycle

Yes, video chatting has been around for more than a decade. Typically, all major communications introductions have endured long early adopter-to-mainstream gestation periods. The printing press, telegraph, telephone, radio, television, cell phone, email, texting and social media—all took a generation or more and some precipitating event(s) before each truly became the new normal, or until grandma was comfortable using it, too.

COVID-19, coupled with the relatively recent group video chat capability, is the precipitating event that has raised video chatting from a cool thing the kids do or a high-end business tool to grandma sending you a link for a family video meeting. Outside of us tech business types, who even heard of Zoom two months ago? Zoom had barely heard of Zoom. Its number of active users pandemically spread from 10 million to 200 million in just three months, and the company had to famously scramble to firm up its security to prevent new-fangled “Zoom-bombing.” You know you’ve passed a critical mass of acceptance and popularity when hackers start to swarm, and the attacks earn a unique sobriquet.

Aside from the creation of new terminologies, new communication technologies also begat unintended annoyances, abuses, and new forms of immorality and criminality. Just as radio and TV begat commercials, Father Coughlin and the Volksempfänger; telephone begat dinner-time sales and robocalls; email begat spam and phishing; the internet begat identity theft and ransomware; cell/smartphone begat in-the-middle-of-dinner “excuse me, I have to take this” and social media check-in rudeness; and social media begat trolls, video chatting will beget its own unique ills.

And it will take a while to effectively deal with whatever video chatting ills arise—and they will arise. Government legislation infamously lags far behind new technological abuses and criminality. After all, it took 60 years for the U.S Congress to update the U.S. 1936 Telecommunications Act and, when it finally did in 1996, the new legislation didn’t even mention the internet. We’re still trying to figure out how to legislatively deal with the recent and ongoing online election interference, we haven’t yet decided if Twitter and Facebook are platforms or publishers, nor have we definitely defined whether the internet is a public utility or not. There will be similar legal and legislative lags when we need to deal with whatever nefarious activities video chatting breeds now that so many of us are stripping the tape covering our webcams.

Now that video chatting has reached the grandma comfort level, there’s no going back. Fortunately, growing 5G rollouts and Wi-Fi 6, as well as more efficient codecs, are coming to potentially alleviate some of the distribution and infrastructure issues our sudden acceptance of video chatting has caused. We’ll have to see how we deal with the behavioral and psychological issues video chatting are already breeding. Whatever the video chatting technical or social consequences, it’s clear that the kind of casual, “no-big-deal” video calling AT&T demonstrated at the 1964 World’s Fair or depicted in 2001: A Space Odyssey and other sci-fi fever dreams has finally become normal.