BETWEEN ZOOM-MEETINGS AND SKYPE CALLS: HOW VIDEO CONFERENCING HAS BECOME THE SOCIAL GLUE OF A PANDEMIC

On: October 21, 2020
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About Sandy Rafaela Krambeck


   

Communication has changed dramatically since COVID-19 spread. Many countries have adopted different degrees of quarantine and remote work is on the rise. Social contact has been dramatically shortened. In the following lines, a discussion will be developed on the role of video conference platforms in the pandemic context, especially Skype and Zoom platforms. The purpose of this article is to create a structure of analysis that highlights the possibilities and limitations of these platforms with focus on platform functionalities, contribution to mental health and privacy issues.

As prime minister Rutte put it in a televised press conference on April 7th, the new normal has started (Rijksoverheid, 2020). But what does that mean for us? What does the new normal look like, apart from masks and social distancing? If there is one thing the COVID-19 pandemic has definitely sped up, it’s the digitalisation of social life at large. Due to the rapid geographical spread of the disease a state of pandemic was declared and  life as we know it went on lock-down during the first wave of infections in March of 2020 (WHO; ECDE, 2020). Institutions, governments,  businesses big and small were forced to move towards a decentralised way of work that has everyone operating from  the safety of their homes, connecting through means of video conferencing software. At the same time, grandparents now have to distance from their families, forcing them to apply technology for personal contact instead. This led to a surge in users on all video conferencing platforms, with one of them taking the lead and navigating through this pandemic as the big winner: Zoom. According to Iqbal (2020) while 10 million participants attended meetings on Zoom each day at the end of 2019 by April 2020 usage had increased to 300 million participants, an incredible growth of 2900%. Many other platforms also registered a growth in users due to the pandemic (see graph 1 below).

Graph 1: User growth of popular platforms in percentage.

From school, to work, to family, to relationships and even sexual encounters, our social contact moved to digital spaces. A survey carried out by Hawryluck et al. (2003) demonstrated that a substantial proportion of people submitted to quarantine suffered from distress, as evidenced by the proportion of people who present symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and depression during or after being quarantined. Researchers everywhere voiced their concerns over mental health being compromised for the greater good of flattening the curve (Jacobson et al.1; Rottenberg & Gruber n.pag.).

In this context, this article seeks to answer questions regarding users and uses of video conferencing service Zoom during the COVID-19 pandemic. How come Zoom seems to be the great winner from this pandemic rather than more established platforms? And why are many businesses choosing Zoom in spite of all privacy concerns over the service? What are the effects on the mental health of users being forced to substitute social content for technology? Over half a year into the pandemic, it is time to take a step back and evaluate the implications of the use of video conference platforms, more specifically, Zoom and Skype. We understand that there is an important difference between these two platforms, while Skype is also widely used in informal meetings, Zoom is used mainly in formal situations, this difference is a relevant consideration since our goal is to analyse not only changes in interactions at work but also the changes in personal interactions.

Methodology

Based on the assumption described by McLuhan (1964) that considers not only the content, but the medium and culture that the media operates, this analysis will be guided both by materiality, with the technological element, through the interface, features and  affordances, as well as the study of the social phenomenon, relate to the process of interaction through the platforms, the issue of privacy and mental health. An extensive, but not exhaustive, bibliographic investigation was carried out, as well as data collection throughout different sources and an empirical process of using these two platforms and their tools to delimit their possibilities and restrictions. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has ceased social contact offline. Most of the everyday contacts went from the offline version to online form. In our article we want to examine the role of video calls in times of global pandemic. Based on the literature research, presenting the academic debate around this subject, we want to show why it is important for future research to investigate the role of video calls during the Coronavirus pandemic. How can video calls help in the times when many people are facing lack of face to face contact with their friends and families? 

Affordances of video conference platforms

McLuhan argues that technologies have the possibility to change the way people think, he exemplifies his thought with the advent of money, he said “Money has reorganized the sense life of peoples just because it is an extension of our sense lives” (McLuhan, 1964, 8). In his perspective, objects have properties that can be accessed by the user. We can call these properties affordances. The academic debate about the term affordances is broad, since its first use, by Gibson (1966), countless scholars have studied the topic in an attempt to define it effectively. 

Gibson theorized the concept of affordances through an ecological perspective connecting the body and the environment “The affordances of the environment are what it offers the animal, what it provides or furnishes, either for good or ill… It implies the complementarity of the animal and the environment.” (Gibson, 1979, 127). According to the author, this relational character, through direct perception, makes the actor recognize the intrinsic properties of the object and, consequently, perform certain attitudes or behaviors (Gibson, 1979). Norman, on the other hand, differentiates affordances between what is real and what is perceived, “Norman (1999) went on to distinguish between real and perceived affordances. Real affordances are the functions attached to a given object — what, potentially, that object affords. Perceived affordances are features that are clear to the user.” (Davis & Chouinard, 2017, 242). The author tries to answer the question for which the object is used and believes that the better the design of a particular object the better it fulfills its function “Thus, power is placed in the hands of designers who have the power to enable and constrain certain action possibilities through their design choices.”( Butcher & Helmond, 2018, 6)

While Gibson situates affordances in the relationship between the animal and the environment, Norman focuses his analysis on the technical functionalities that an object offers its user, “The question was no longer how organisms see, as was the case in Gibson’s work, but rather how certain objects could be designed to encourage or constrain specific actions.”( Butcher & Helmond, 2018, 6). Thus, we propose a double analysis of the video conference tools. On one hand, related to the materiality of the object, the interface and features of the two programs (Norman’s perspective), on the other hand, affordances linked to social implications, more specifically, mental health and privacy (Gibson’s perspective).

The technical functionality of the two programs were analyzed through the empirical exploration of objects. It was noticed that Zoom has some extra features that facilitate the interactions in groups, such as raising hands, or meeting organizer control, perhaps this is the reason for its recent popularity, which constitutes a better design, thus fulfills its function more effectively. It was also possible to verify that the two platforms have numerous features that, in addition to afford interaction with continuous feedback, both platforms can afford several types of communication at the same time – video, message, sharing documents –  and can integrate with many different applications. Although these features contribute to the popularization of these two platforms, certainly the main factor for the increase in users is the pandemic. Working from home has mitigated the economic and health consequences. According to Eurostat (2020), in 2019 around 9.5% of workers in the European Union worked remotely.

Boeri et al. (2020) estimated that home-based work in European countries after the spread of COVID-19 increased to between 24% and 31%. Even though the increased remote work is seen in many countries beside European Union, it is not possible to extend these results worldwide because “Many workers in developing nations are employed in occupations that cannot be done from home… It is six times more common to be a street vendor in a low-income country than in a high-income country, and 17 times more common to be an agricultural labourer.” (Berg et al., 2020). The affordances of video conferencing platforms made working remotely possible, but they go far beyond that, in the private sphere of life, they also have played an important role.

Privacy concerns regarding Zoom & Skype

As the privacy statements of the two video conferencing services explored are quite opaque, the following part also contains sources from well-established technology news journals. It has been widely discussed in tech press that Zoom is facing many issues when it comes to privacy (The Verge; HackerNews; Ars Technica; TechCrunch, 2020). So how safe are Zoom meetings exactly? While the company formerly claimed that calls are end-to-end encrypted, it has since back-pedalled and confirmed that they are not. After pressure from privacy and human rights advocates, the platform promised to encrypt calls from paying and non-paying customers alike (Goodin, 2020). To further test Zoom safety, security researchers developed a tool that finds up to 100 unique Zoom meeting IDs in an hour, thus making that 2.400 Zoom meeting IDs in one day of crawling. As the company states, passwords for meetings are available but are still not applied that much. This ease of finding meeting IDs and access codes has led to so-called “Zoombombing”, a photobomb but on Zoom meetings. Through Zoombombing trolls share everything from hate speech to pornographic content in the middle of business meetings (see video below). And if that was not enough already, certain settings of the service could lead to leaking company data such as user emails and photos (Carman; Lorenz, 2020). So the employed tech is not necessarily safe. In addition, Zoom uses its websites for user tracking and marketing purposes. While Zoom states in its privacy terms, the Zoom sessions are distinct from the website and no data is being used for marketing purposes (Zoom, 2020). So at least there is no need for users to worry about data being collected on the service.

So what is the safer option? Could users be better off using another service altogether? To answer this question, we are taking a closer look at video conferencing giant Skype. In 2011, the service was acquired by Microsoft which has made it quite difficult to understand the privacy policy as  it is shared along all Microsoft services. It does not specify what information is collected (Gilbert, 2020). Recently, practices of the service regarding its human-supported AI processing by contractors were strongly criticised. As Cox (2020) described, Microsoft hired contractors to listen to audio records from Cortana or Skype Translator services, to improve their machine learning algorithms. Microsoft has since changed its privacy statement to include this practice and has in contrast to other video conferencing services also confirmed that it will continue this practice (Lomas, 2020). Also, end-to-end encryption is not a default encryption standard on Skype, but an opt-in and only available since January (Deahl, 2020). The advantage of Skype is that meeting IDs are not as easily hijacked as they are on Zoom and at least in the recent past, no data leaks have been reported. 

But what does that mean for users? It is clear that tech companies such as Zoom and Microsoft are benefitting from a great influx of new users. Users need to ask themselves what they prioritise: security, ease of use, wide-spread application? It is important to keep pushing the providers of video conferencing software to put safety at the heart of their service. After all, our privacy should not be the victim of the economic winners of this pandemic. 

Mental Health

Bidirectional view between two people is an important part of human interactions which elicits automatic arousal and facial reactions (Hietanen, Peltola and Hietanen, 2020). Those reactions occur in live eye contact, and can not be obrevate in the response to direct gaze pictures, or in situations when a person is believed to not be seen (Hietanen, Peltola and Hietanen, 2020). However, the autonomic arousal effect of eye contact is similar in live and video call interactions, and it is assumed that the power of eye contact at video call is very strong (Hietanen, Peltola and Hietanen, 2020). What is more, it is assumed that it may overcome the limitations made by physical distance (Hietanen, Peltola and Hietanen, 2020).  For that reason, video calls which offer the opportunity to see other people and have interaction at the same time may be a solution for the lack of social contact made by COVID-19 isolation restrictions. Communication with friends and family is an important part of people lives. 

Lack of social contact can have a huge impact on Mental Health of people. There is evidence that social isolation is strongly correlated with negative health outcomes, and is closely connected with depression, each building on the other (Baecker et al, 2014, 27). Previous research has shown that videoconferencing with family can decrease depressive symptoms and loneliness (Baecker et al, 2014, 28). Problem of isolation and lack of social contact has been faced by residents of nursing homes and elderly houses before the COVID-19 epidemic. Previous studies showed that videoconferencing among older people with lack of social contact can be beneficial for those who experienced “isolation and lack of a social network”, and improve their long-term well being (Siniscarco, Love-Williams, and  Burnett-Wolle, 2017). People experienced less depression and more closeness after seeing their loved ones’ faces (Siniscarco, Love-Williams, and  Burnett-Wolle, 2017). What is more,  respondents of the research enjoyed the possibility to not only hear but also see the people important to them (Siniscarco, Love-Williams, and  Burnett-Wolle, 2017). Thus, it is important to mention that conclusions presented in this accapite, are the conclusions made on the research group of olderly people. Many of them do not have full access to new technologies, needed to learn how to use the video calls. For future research it would be very beneficial to examine the role of video calls on groups of young people, familiar with new technology, and with access to new technologies.

Conclusion

Can you imagine what life would be like if COVID-19 hit us thirty years ago? Our social behavior needed to be reformulated and, as much as there are challenges to be overcome, it is impossible to deny that digital communication instruments are fundamental to reduce the economic and social impact during the pandemic. Video calls enable people to see their friends and family, better communicate at work and school/university. This essay intended to stop and review the intense growth in video conferencing due to the pandemic and recap technical and economic developments regarding users and usage of video video conferencing services. Zoom surfaced as the great winner of this pandemic, this is partly due to its seamless affordances, allowing users with little technical knowledge to confidently navigate the service. It is much easier to use than most other available services and allows for many options to be used free of charge. This led to criticism of the service and concerns that users would trade their security for ease of use. However in this research we showed that this problem in fact is more complicated, as Skype in comparison has had grave privacy issues as well. Therefore, Zoom is not more or less safe than other more established services. 

Current literature shows that video calls reduce the feeling of loneliness and depression. Video conferencing platforms are able, through their affordances, to compensate part of the demands for interactions in work situations as well as social contact with family and friends. While social distancing is important to protect our physiological health, the isolation also creates risks of psychiatric illnesses. Through the analysis of a set of studies we demonstrated how video conferencing platforms can aid mental health through enabling social contact. In addition, it is crucial to mention that video chats are the only way to express oneself digitally in real-time and face-to-face. However, it is important for future research, to take a closer look at the long-term effects of the digitalization of all social contact. So, half a year into a world-wide pandemic, where do we stand? It is safe to say that not only the video conferencing providers are the big winners of this pandemic, the users are too. In times of restrained personal contact, video calls offer support, connection and digital spaces of contact. Whether it may be a digital house party, a work meeting, grandma’s birthday or simply a cup of coffee with the study buddy, video conferencing enables us to be there. And as we are swept into the second wave of infections, we keep getting better and more accustomed to the new normal

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