What I have learned about video-mediated interaction as a conversation analyst

About ten years ago, I began working on my doctoral research project, in which I studied people’s interaction in a hybrid, global business meeting setting. Not knowing what was to come (hint: the pandemic), I started paying attention to how technologies were shaping interactions. In our current, post-pandemic world, we find ourselves in a situation where hybrid and remote modes of communication (such as Zoom or Teams) are ever-increasing. Here is what I have learned about video-mediated interactions over the past years.
Laptop with multiple human faces on the screen. A man's left hand is on the laptop keyboard, and his right hand holds a tea mug. There are also books and pens on the table.

My background is in linguistics, and from the beginning, I have been interested in what people do with language, and what happens when people come together and speak. To understand such complexities of language, my main working method is ‘conversation analysis,’ which is concerned with understanding naturally occurring talk and interaction between people.

As a conversation analyst, I see interaction as being both local and situated – the way in which we talk varies depending on the situation. Interaction is also about the ‘being and doing’ between two or more people, which is all more than just talk. Interaction is also concerned with embodiments – including our body language – and how we take advantage of the surrounding objects. It is based on mutually shared, implicit, unwritten rules which dictate how we, for instance, take turns in a conversation. It all boils down to how we construct intersubjective understanding in the situation, as well as how we construct our reality and our shared knowledge of the world.

Being fascinated by the all-encompassing, ubiquitous role of interaction in our everyday lives, I decided to study interaction in a multicultural business setting in my doctoral research. I videorecorded business meetings, which employees could join from all around the world. These meetings were organised in hybrid mode so that some of the participants were in the same physical space (in the conference room together), while others were attending the meetings remotely via technology. At the beginning of the project, I was interested in aspects of interculturality, but the prevalent role of technologies on-site guided me to another direction.

At the time of my doctoral research, hybrid meetings were still a rarity as we were living in the pre-covid world. However, as soon as the pandemic hit, remote and hybrid meetings became the new norm. My research gained popularity, and I was appointed to the PeaceTalk project as a Postdoctoral Researcher to study remote learning situations in crisis management training.

A couple of years later, the end of the pandemic is insight, but the hybrid and remote modes of meeting people are here to stay, in education and work life contexts especially. So much so that several initiatives for hybrid learning are already in motion. While both remote and hybrid teaching promote flexibility and accessibility, creating also great possibilities for international collaboration, we need research-based knowledge of what works and what does not in terms of video-mediated interaction.

Therefore, after all these years of researching video-mediated interaction and teaching online, I will now summarise the key things that I have learned about this current topic.

Video-mediated interaction differs from face-to-face interaction

… in the notions of embodiments, ‘space,’ and perspective. When we interact, we tend to employ a variety of resources to get our message across. For instance, we might use hand gestures to point at a certain object or direct our gaze towards something. In an online meeting, we must adapt these embodiments so that they fit into the frame of the screen, for example. In video-mediated interaction, our embodiments are further constrained by the talking heads norm and the so-called face wall situation.

When interacting on a video-mediated platform, the notion of ‘space’ also morphs. When we interact with each other, we mutually construct the space for the interaction. This means that we may position our bodies and produce talk in specific ways to show engagement in a moment with someone, then and there, and to indicate that we are in the same situation together. In hybrid meetings, the construction of space gets more complicated, as the co-present participants in the room share the same physical space as opposed to the remote participants. However, all people take part in the construction of the shared space.

The notion of ‘space’ also matters in remote and hybrid educational contexts. A teacher’s interpretation of the pupils’ engagement might not be truthful, especially when making judgements based on the pupils’ talk alone. Making judgements based on what is visible on the screen is deficient too, as pupils might be on their phones while simultaneously appearing as if they are looking at the screen.

Finally, I have also come to understand that when it comes to video-mediated interaction, perspective matters. Perspective can be influenced by the screen view as well as the type of device a person is using. In my analysis of the crisis management training sessions, I noticed how a trainee did not pay attention to the ongoing chat as their device did not allow the chat function. This was likely to cause misunderstandings as the trainees were used to communicating via chat.

The difficulties further arise in terms of coordinating actions

Some people are more used to using technologies than others. In my doctoral research, I noticed the participating in the hybrid meetings was mundane for the people in the organisation, and challenges in terms of managing the situation were quite rare. However, the data which I gathered at the start of the pandemic tells a different story. The accomplishment of actions appears to be more difficult among the novice users of video-mediated communication platforms. The challenges occur in terms of accomplishing simultaneous tasks and taking part in conversations while also paying attention to other channels and relevant objects.

One practice which I have found to be useful in easing the chaos is establishing common rules with the people you are interacting with. These rules can be related to, for instance, how turns are taken in the conversations: using the 'raise hand' function is one option, but there are surely others too. Agreeing on the type of screen view to use is also another practice which might help level off the perspective differences.

When it comes to technology, being merciful to yourself is also good. Not everything always goes according to plan, and having a plan B might alleviate the panic and chaos which results from technologies not working properly, which is what happens sometimes – unavoidably so.

We need more research to guide digitalisation towards the right direction

Digitalisation will continue to shape every aspect of our lives. Innovative technologies enable collaborations between different actors in society. Distance education can transform our educational practices by allowing flexibility and greater access to learning: in the upcoming years, university students may be able to select courses from other universities more freely. Both hybrid and remote modes of attending courses are becoming more common and highly requested by students.

But before we move on with the digitalisation of education, we must first know what works and what does not. This warrants research to outline the competencies needed by both teachers and students to thrive in video-mediated education contexts. On top of all, we need research at grass roots level to guide digitalisation in the right direction – a direction that is human-centric and allows us to experience the true benefits of this mega trend.

Photo: Diva Plavalaguna, Pexels


Postdoctoral researcher
Languages and Literature
University of Oulu

Tuire Oittinen is a social interaction researcher, and she investigates the role of technologies in contemporary working life and higher education contexts.