Mrs Diekmann, a year ago we started the new year in direct contact with others. Today we sit in front of the screen for a toast. How come we got used to the new virtual normal so quickly?
Pressure to implement, I would say. At the university, it was like this: the blockade in mid-March came just four weeks before the scheduled start of the semester. And the first, understandable panic reaction of the university management, was to postpone the beginning of the semester by one to three weeks. A necessity that was never questioned was that the semester must begin. Then just digital.
I found it very interesting and sometimes strange to see that this decision created obvious and very dynamic pressure for implementation and adaptation. This meant that everyone became acquainted with the use of different platforms and streaming offers in a relatively short time and then started the semester with a relatively small delay. The idea that things had to go as quickly as possible certainly played a role in other areas of work.
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The driving force behind this development was therefore an urge rather than a desire for something new.
I believe that in many areas there has been a very decisive pressure to make users aware of the possible use of digital technologies. For many, the desire came only when it was clear that it would at least work fundamentally: It is possible to obtain it and it works more than expected.
Then there was the phase in which the technologies were used very enthusiastically, especially in April, May and June. Many users became more familiar with this technology and were looking for at least a widespread, if not creative, approach. It is also a feeling of success. At the end of the summer, however, this development was replaced by a certain amount of fatigue. These three phases can be clearly distinguished: a certain panic, an interest in exploring the possibilities and then the currently very visible and audible fatigue.
Many people have created their own virtual meeting background. Is it a sign that you are accepting new circumstances and want your own digital work environment to be as beautiful as possible?
On the one hand, I would see it from the point of view of testing: We will try and see which features are available. And there is almost always a basic desire for originality in the office environment. This is then usually expressed through postcards with sayings, through coffee mugs or things on the table. In this case, it was a background whose really limited originality was noticed by the user very soon.
After that, this background largely disappeared. When I go to conferences now, the background is often just black and white. Or people were looking for a white wall with good lighting conditions in their apartment, which they now face when they are online.
Stefanie Diekmann, Professor of Media Culture Studies at the University of Hildesheim, private
We also reveal something very private by streaming live for hours from our study or kitchen during video conferencing. How did we get ready so quickly – even though data protection is otherwise such a big problem in Germany?
A very common theory is that social media has prepared for this to some extent: The culture of visual self-publication has existed for a relatively long time. However, social media activities are carried out in a much more dosed and controlled manner. If you point to the video conferencing tile and are busy interacting, then everything can appear and run in the background. This then belongs rather to the category of involuntary self-publication.
Was there a phase in which we did not even realize our new role as the end of the current?
I myself was shaping the reactions to this new situation: In other words, many libraries that were visible in the background for a while, as if users were safely parked in front of them. Attempts to protect the work environment to prevent uncontrollable background events. But my impression was that there was a certain phase of latency until people realized that it was a form of self-publishing that was much less controllable than social media, precisely because it lasted so long. Sometimes we sat for hours on these video conferences, which you have to be more careful about and which nevertheless had a stronger exposure than forms that have already been tried and tested.
Is it related to the fact that video conferencing is a seemingly fleeting form of self-publication? Unlike Facebook or Instagram, there may not always be a record that we can look at later.
It would be nice if it was fleeting. As a university lecturer, I sit very regularly in the same groups with the same people on the same dates. Although it is not an infinite scheme, the same constellation is created over and over again. On the one hand, it means pressure, but on the other hand, it is also an opportunity, because you can make repairs. Do I want to sit in front of the same backdrop next time? Or will I change the location? It’s also exciting: The very young students I deal with almost always refuse to turn on their webcams in digital seminars.
And then there’s data protection. Meanwhile, zoom has become a cipher for video conferencing, as has the speed of paper handkerchiefs. The University of Hildesheim very quickly developed an application to be able to offer its own conference environment, which is then also data-secured. Although there are still technical problems with this – the connection is not so stable, only a limited number of cameras can be connected – the vast majority of students voted to use this secure data environment instead of enlarging.
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It is often assumed for the younger generation that they do not attach so much importance to data protection and that they would be exposed on social networks. Where does the very conscious use of video conferencing come from?
A certain level of competence has been created through social media, in which this generation is in fact much more agile than the older generation. Thanks to that, they are more reserved. And I believe that especially students who proceed with a certain degree of caution in their peer groups have reconsidered how much they want to show from their daily lives. In addition, younger people live in much more cramped conditions than working people, who can sometimes think about where to sit in their apartment.
Many people wonder which digital innovations will remain after a pandemic. Is video conferencing a transitional technology to bridge a pandemic, or is it something that has changed our working lives forever that people no longer want to do without it?
From my point of view, the ideal scenario would be a less extensive use, but it will not be completely stopped, because in many cases it makes sense. Just think of the many air routes that will be removed and that we can really save ourselves. I would certainly be in favor of continuing video conferencing in terms of one-off meetings, not regular meetings. It would be a real asset.
What can’t be viewed online, what could be shown live?
During conversations about online conferencing, there is a solid half-knowledge that we have all built up on communication: for example, that whole body language, a nonverbal registry, would be omitted, and that this leads to a particularly stressful situation in tile video conferencing communication. I understand that, I have also noticed that I am leaving a digitally organized seminar other than the one that took place live. There is a certain refocusing and with it a concrete effort. And there is also a lack of feeling for the atmosphere.
There is also something positive about video conferencing: They are quite effective and relatively fast, because no one wants to stay in these constellations for too long. Disjointed performances, endless verbal contributions and silly jokes that hold everything – are largely eliminated. And that’s not bad at all.
Stefanie Diekmann is Professor of Media Culture Studies at the University of Hildesheim. There he runs the Institute for Media, Theater and Popular Culture.