Video chat has every appearance of being a solid win for human communication. It’s useful for companies with far-flung employees and for distant friends and family. With social media becoming ever more fractious, it seems like seeing and talking to a real person on video chat offers some hope for maintaining some humanness in our online conversations.
But here’s the thing: The newest innovations in video chat are making conversations between groups worse by combining the bleakest of online and real-life worlds. The two biggest providers of free group video chat, Google and Apple, have built software reinforcing some of the obnoxious dynamics of real-life group meetings — including sexism and racism.
The idea, in theory, is that it makes it possible to focus on the person speaking. But it also rewards the loudest person in the room.
One of the main features coded into Google Hangouts and Apple’s new Group FaceTime is that when someone is talking, their image becomes really big. Those who aren’t talking become small. The idea, in theory, is that it makes it possible to focus on the person speaking.
But it also rewards the loudest person in the room — echoing one of the dreariest problems that already infects everyday face-to-face groupings. You know from any meeting, conference panel, or late-night drinks that the loudest person in the room is rarely dropping the biggest pearls of wisdom or bringing the group together. Group FaceTime and Hangouts exacerbate this problem by making the loudmouth’s face loom large on-screen for as long he’s yammering.
The other problem with software rewarding the loudest talkers is that women and marginalized folks tend to be penalized for speaking up. What is the price of being loud if you’re a woman of color? What does it mean to be perceived as loud? What’s the penalty if you’re too loud?