Early in the pandemic, I used Zoom and other video-chat platforms like never before. For me it was mostly social, not work-related: a way to see and stay in touch with family and friends when I wasn’t meeting them in person. I soon noticed ways the technology compromised communication.
Take back-channelling. This is when we say things like mm, yeah, and whoa to convey, minimally, that we’re listening, that we agree, that the speaker should continue their conversational turn, and so on. Back-channelling didn’t work well in some apps, because the timing was slightly out of sync or because the sounds briefly dominated the audio, interfering with the speaker instead of supporting them.
Such problems are not new, but they are newly prevalent. How to tackle them depends on the context: the technology, the conversation type, the people involved, and so on. One thing I did was reduce my back-channelling noises; in their place I nodded more often and more visibly and used more facial expressions.
I also made visual reaction cards based on popular emoji:
These I would flip up sporadically to convey, silently, a certain reaction. The cards’ physical nature (they’re about 10 × 10 cm) also allowed me to use them in creative ways, playing on the control I could exert over their display: timing, size and position/movement on screen, and so on.
They were especially useful in group video chats, where the numbers increased the technological problems. A well-timed, well-chosen emoji leavened the chaos. If I were to make them again, I would replace a few: some I seldom used (😍😆🙃), and others I missed (😑😭🙈😶😱‼️). Though the more cards, the more fiddling to find the one you need.
Emoji already appear in the physical world, as designs on stickers, plush toys, etc. But in their paralinguistic or quasi-gestural function they’re mainly restricted to text-based digital communication, as in messaging apps and social media. Using emoji cards in screen-mediated face-to-face chat blurred a line that was already blurry.