Camera On or Off? The Online Ecologies We Don’t Know How to Interact Within (Yet)

So, quick recap: when the COVID-19 pandemic hit last year, many schools and universities went online and remain that way to this day. You know how it is. We’ve all been living it for what feels like forever and also somehow five minutes. 

With online school came the ubiquitous use of Zoom, the video conferencing application we’re all a bit too used to by now. Don’t get me wrong, I’m definitely grateful for Zoom. Without it, I’d never have gotten the chance to continue my education. Until quite recently, no such technology existed that allowed professors and students to communicate across thousands of miles. 

Zoom Tips 2020 – The Patriot VoiceBut there’s one aspect of Zoom calling that I still just can’t get used to: being on camera. I’m confident many of my classmates feel the same way. While some professors (especially in small classes) require students to have their cameras on during class, many don’t, leaving the choice of “to show my face or not” up to students. Sometimes, students turn their cameras on so as to try to engage more with professors and show their attention. That makes sense to me. From an educator point of view, I can only imagine how disheartening it might be to talk to what looks like no one. Yet oftentimes, at least in my and many of my friends’ cases, entire lectures and recitation sections are nothing but a sea of black squares. 

Personally, I usually have my camera off, but not out of malice or lack of engagement in the class. I’m sure that’s the case for most students. But I still want to participate in my synchronous classes. The option that leaves me: asking and answering questions in the chat box feature.

The chat box has been a surprisingly useful tool for me over the last year, and from my and my friends’ experiences, it seems to have done the same for many other students. In my classes, people are constantly asking questions directed at our professors or TAs in the chat box. We’re also using it to talk amongst ourselves, in a sense. We know the chat isn’t private, yet students can often be found answering each others’ queries, reacting to things the professor said, and making jokes. The chat box has been a haven for people like me too anxious to turn on our cameras yet motivated enough to want to participate in class. 

I have a pet theory about why it seems like so many students prefer the chat to being on camera. I think it has something to do with how most of us are comfortable existing online: as text on a screen only, as a disembodied voice rather than a person on video in their bedroom wearing sweatpants. For a long time, the only way we as individuals communicated online was via written communication. Email, instant messaging, and onto early social media sites like MySpace and Yahoo. Nowadays, plenty of writing-based social media platforms are still popular: Twitter, Tumblr, Reddit, Facebook, and etc. 

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This phenomenon reminded me of some ideas from Marilyn Cooper’s article “The Ecology of Writing“. Cooper discusses how there are different “ecologies” for writing (and, more broadly, communication). These ecologies are vast webs of sociocultural know-how and discourse, and they effect how we as writers or speakers choose to convey our thoughts. Five interconnected systems compose every ecology: the system of ideas, the system of purposes, the system of interpersonal interactions, the system of cultural norms, and the system of textual forms. Audience is also an important part of Cooper’s model. According to the older school of thought– the cognitive process model– the audience of a text is an imagined entity in the mind of a solitary author. In Cooper’s ecological model, the audience are real readers with whom writers share and edit their texts.

I don’t think we as a society have decided how (or what) exactly these five systems are in the modern ecology of Zoom. I think we are trying our best to act according to previous systems that are actually part of different models. After all, the rules and mores under each of the five categories, all of which prop up the ecology of “school”, have changed due to the online format. How do interpersonal interactions work when the lag accidentally causes two people to talk over each other? How is a student to grasp at ideas without seeing, hearing, touching them in person? What are the norms of this place?

There is a precedent for online behavior and discourse. It’s just not Zoom. It’s an amalgamation of customs and conventions that developed over time across various online communication platforms. I think we students are relying on the conventions we’ve picked up over our time on different platforms to inform how we interact on Zoom. I think students who rely on the chat box feature are more comfortable using the textual form of the written word, as opposed to speaking up on camera. Which makes sense: the written word is a textual form most of us are comfortable with, and it’s been around online for a long time.

But speaking face-to-face is also a textual form most of us are comfortable with, so why is speaking up on Zoom so difficult sometimes? I think the answer might have to do with our conception of audience. When school is conducted in-person, students have no choice but to view their educators and peers as “real readers” with whom they can interact. We’re used to speaking aloud to real readers (or listeners). But on Zoom, I think we sometimes see our educators and peers as… distant. Unreal. Like imaginary people represented by squares on a screen. Like the audience posited by the cognitive process model. I don’t think most of us are used to speaking aloud to that audience. But writing to them? We do that all the time.

I guess only time will tell what the social mores of Zoom will become. Or, hopefully, it won’t. Chat boxes are fine, but I’d like to get back to an ecology I’m used to sometime soon. But at least our brief migration to Zoomland will have taught us a lot about ourselves and how we behave online.

How “The Algorithm” Builds Toxic Mental Health Echo Chambers

CW: mental health, suicide, eating disorders

If you’re anything like me, you have somewhat of a love-hate relationship with “the algorithm”. On the one hand, I get shown content of the variety I’m partial to on the regular. I’m into houseplants and calligraphy, and the algorithm knows that, so I rather like coming across aesthetically pleasing calligraphy videos on YouTube. On the other hand, I’m a little creeped out that the algorithm knows me so well, and I know that it can serve to perpetuate harmful ideas (as discussed in Noble’s article). On a sillier level, I don’t exactly appreciate getting called out on the regular by other young adults with mental health issues on the internet. 

Actually, interacting (AKA, liking/commenting) with that last type of video can easily trigger another aspect of “the algorithm” that I’m less enthused about: the funneling of impressionable young people into misguided mental health spaces. These are online spaces (comment sections, users’ personal pages, group accounts) wherein often unqualified young adults and teens discuss mental health. Users will make videos prompting others to relate to symptoms of neurodevelopmental disorders or mental illnesses, poke fun at their own mental health challenges, and sometimes glamorize the idea of being deeply unhappy— even suicidal.

Right now, this subculture is having a bit of a moment on TikTok, but it’s certainly not anything new. I’m sure my classmates remember 2012-era Eating Disorder Tumblr

A mild example of what a search of "thinspo" on Tumblr yields.

A mild example of toxic eating disorder culture on Tumblr.

I’m not trying to say that this side of the internet is all bad, though. Users often also share tips or tricks that help make daily tasks easier to accomplish, or encourage people to seek professional help if they are struggling. Other users are actual medical professionals or therapists doing their best to offer useful advice. It’s also just nice to know that you’re not alone in your problems. I know I’ve also found solace knowing I’m not the only one experiencing feelings I thought were uniquely mine to bear, or that I’m not the only one who worries about [insert silly thing].

All I’m trying to say is that, when “the algorithm” aggressively directs users to these kind of mental health spaces and subsequently feeds them often misguided and toxic information, things can quickly get ugly. Vulnerable young people have been known to develop eating disorders or pick up inadvisable coping mechanisms as a result of interacting in such online spaces. And because they continue to interact with such content, these young people can find it extremely difficult to break out of these toxic bubbles. Instead, they get stuck in this nightmarish echo chamber full of other sad teens who are just trying to feel okay in a confusing, scary world. 

It’s this echo chamber effect created by “the algorithm” that worries me most. It certainly isn’t limited to mental health discourse: social and political echo chambers exist all over the internet. Laquintano and Vee describe how “the algorithm” affected the circulation of political information ahead of the 2016 election in their article. These spaces can similarly serve to promote misguided ideologies (such as glorifying cults).

Echo chamber | Cartoons |

A political cartoon showing a modern example of how social media creates echo chambers. Illustration by Robert Ariall on

Generally though, echo chambers of any kind do one thing best: they echo. They repeat the same few ideas and opinions over and over and over again. And when those ideas are harmful, bad things happen. Real-world problems start to occur, and perhaps just as importantly, young people who’ve fallen prey to this algorithmic shepherding are prevented from seeing that there are other parts of life— online and off—  that are better than this. Even beautiful. This isn’t all there is. Some things matter way more important than the circumference of your wrists.

I don’t have a solution to this shepherding problem. Do we need more content censorship so that harmful information never ends up online in the first place? Or is that an infringement upon free speech? Should we “dial back” how aggressively the algorithm picks up on browsing patterns and herds us into groups? I don’t know. But I’m confident that we could all benefit from stepping outside our online bubbles, even if we don’t think we’re in a harmful or hateful space. Perspective is key: your slice of the internet is never all there is. The internet can be a tool for good, if we use it that way.

Main Character Syndrome, Fleabag, and the Internalization of Audience

When I first read Marilyn Cooper’s article “The Ecology of Writing”, I’ll admit I was puzzled by the differences between what Cooper calls the cognitive process model and the ecological model of writing. The notion of a solitary author, as posited by the cognitive process model, didn’t seem so outlandish to me. Of course writing is a solitary activity– I don’t exactly sit around and gossip while I write essays, and I’ve certainly felt that I was “not a part of the world” I was writing for. As a lonely, nerdy, pre-English major of a child, I often turned inward to creative writing and reading as a substitute for human interaction. (That should have been the first clue that reading and writing are SOCIAL activities, but alas).

Then I remembered something else I did as an introverted child in lieu of socializing with my peers, and the tenets of the cognitive process model started to give way to those of the ecological model in my mind. Don’t laugh (or do, it’s kind of funny) but pre-teen Anna used to pretend like she was the main character in a young adult novel or a coming-of-age movie. Sound familiar? It should. If you’ve been on TikTok in the last year or so, you’ve probably heard of the main character trend (playfully dubbed “Main Character Syndrome”) going around. As the name suggests, the trend refers to when TikTok users romanticize aspects of their everyday lives and themselves (think sitting in a coffeeshop looking mysterious) as if they were the main character in a story. The main character in the TV show Fleabag embodies this idea perfectly. The protagonist frequently looks directly into the camera and talks to us, the audience, telling us what’s she’s thinking but can’t say out loud for fear of judgement or impoliteness.

So what do my poor coping mechanisms of years past, TikTokkers, and Fleabag all have in common? The answer: the internalization of audience. I conceptualized my middle school problems as plot twists and trials in my very own Hero’s Journey as if they could all be laid out and read chapter by chapter. Teenage girls wander somberly through bookstores, trying their best to look aloof and intellectual for the front-facing camera. Fleabag (that’s also the main character’s name) literally looks directly into camera, all the time. This is when I really started to grasp the ideas of the ecological model. Because pretending to be in a book certainly didn’t do me any favors (hindsight is 20/20: just quit sitting alone at lunch). Psychology professor Michael Karson has written about how viewing oneself as the main character can quickly become toxic. In the show, Fleabag only starts to learn and grow once she turns away from the audience.

Finally, I understood what Cooper meant when she said that no one is a truly solitary author– or at least, it’s unhealthy to do so. Because for Fleabag and I, the only long-term solution to feeling like an outsider involves opening yourself up to others. I can’t speak for teens on the internet, but I know that meeting up with friends after a long day of staring at my laptop and scrolling through social media always makes me feel more connected to the wonderful web of life we live in.

You are not a solitary author mournfully narrating your own story to an outside audience, and you’re never going to feel a part of something greater until you let go of your internal sense of audience. So maybe we all ought to get out of our heads, so to speak, and try to engage in reading, writing, and even speaking/socializing from an ecological perspective and not a cognitive one.

Ted Chiang and Fictional Examples of Concepts Considered in English 4574

So far in English 4574, my classmates and I have read about all sorts of science-fiction-sounding concepts. Wood’s ideas about the incorporation of artificially intelligent virtual assistants into our daily lives (think Siri, Alexa). The idea that picto-, ideo-, and logograms are all unique ways humans communicate, as discussed by Schmandt-Besserat. Young people’s increasing reliance on “smart” or assistive technology like word processors as showcased by Grabhill et all.

If you’re anything like me, then you might feel that although these concepts are intriguing to consider, they’re sometimes difficult to imagine happening. Either that, or their consequences have yet to fully play out in our world. We as a society are still in the throes of dozens of issues like the ones above. Issues of privacy, memory, self-expression, and communication all tied up in the realms of English composition, linguistics, psychology, anthropology, and probably more to come. We’re living through history. The issues discussed by the academics we read are ours to tackle.

But, again, if you’re anything like me, you don’t exactly know where to start. Or, you think the issues themselves are interesting–entertaining, even–and want to read more about them. Allow me to introduce you to the works of Ted Chiang.

Ted Chiang is an American author famous for his thought-provoking science fiction short stories and novellas. Arrival 11x17 Inch Movie POSTER: Posters & PrintsYou might be familiar with the movie version one of his more famous works: Arrival. The movie is based on Chiang’s short story titled “The Story of Your Life.” The plot centers around a linguistics professor named Louise Banks who is tasked with deciphering the complex language of aliens who have just arrived in Earth’s orbit. The story delves into ideas about cultural anthropology, the three “-grams”, and the paradigms of memory.

But wait! There’s more! Chiang has written two collections worth of short stories over the course of his career, and language/communication seems to be a favorite topic of his. His story “Seventy-Two Letters” dives into archaic ideas of names having intrinsic power. “The Lifecycle of Software Objects” is a twist on our usual artificial intelligence story: instead of Siri or Alexa, scientists create semi-sentient digital “pets” called Digients. The story examines how humans interact with and treat these Digients, and what that says about us.

My favorite of Chiang’s language-related stories is probably “The Truth of Fact, the Truth of Fiction”. This story harkens back to Plato’s ideas about memory and writing, but brings these concepts into a fictionalized version of our not-so-distant future. Characters in the story use a technology called Remem as a sort of constant life log. Every moment of their lives is recorded and sorted into categories, essentially externalizing human memory; exactly what Plato feared.

TLDR: Chiang’s stories provide excellent examples of the sorts of concepts we’ve been considering in class. Chiang’s prose is characteristically moving and lyrical while simultaneously drawing upon real scientific theories. If you haven’t read any of his work before, I highly recommend you do.