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.

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.