Gallery View

Whether you love or hate Zoom, BlueJeans and FaceTime, it’s time to consider how their design shapes our perception of ourselves and others.

May 13, 2020

We’ve all been spending a lot more time looking at ourselves lately. It used to be that a quick once-over in the bathroom mirror while brushing our teeth, a scrutinizing analysis of our eye bags while combing our hair or a rueful contemplation of our laugh lines while knotting our ties was the extent of our visual analysis before our workdays began. Since COVID-19, that’s all changed. Now we spend hours every day with our visual selves, looking at our own faces on our monitors and iPads as we interact with our students and professional communities. Much like a worried parent might watch how his or her child relates to classmates at school, thanks to COVID-19, we now have the unique chance to see ourselves at work and to develop a different perspective on how well we play or don’t play with others.

The glowing flat screens that have been taking us away from ourselves by showing us movies, miniseries, books and hyperlinks for years are now suddenly transformed into our windows and mirrors, mediating all our social interactions and telling us a story about ourselves that we may or may not want to hear. Whether we are convening a meeting, teaching a class or celebrating our birthdays or mothers, videoconferencing software reflects both our own faces and our world back at us. And using the same tool for work, socializing and yoga can create a homogenous look and feel to our encounters with others, even as it shows us ourselves anew.

Videoconferencing software has been the great boon and bane of quarantine. On the one hand, Zoom fatigue and Zoombombing are some of the most popular recent additions to our lexicon. The physiological toll of interacting through screens all day and the disturbing intrusion of security breaches are real. And far too many people are quarantined without access to fast and powerful internet speeds and devices; they are experiencing true isolation and often the inability to attend school or work from home. On the other hand, videoconferencing has allowed millions of people to stay connected and productive.

Of course, not all videoconferencing platforms are the same. Google Hangouts, Zoom, BlueJeans, FaceTime, Discord, WhatsApp and others each come with their own features and design. The medium shapes the message, and being as intentional as possible when choosing the right platform and features can be as important as getting a good classroom or deciding between writing on the whiteboard or using PowerPoint. But the choices that we make about our software and how we use it are also more than that: our videoconferencing software tells us who we are and how we desire to relate to others.

Choose Speaker View, for example, and you have chosen to thrust yourself assertively into the spotlight. You have chosen with one click to take up the whole frame and relegate others to the sidelines. Narcissus-like, Speaker View enables us to become enraptured with our own image and to gaze upon it, enlarged dramatically compared to everyone else. In this frame, we find the rest of the world fading into an insignificant background, other people able to do no more than lurk from the periphery, struggling ineffectually to get our attention in the chat box or with the hand-raise feature.

Speaker View invites hubris. Those who speak the longest are literally the biggest. Commanding the floor makes you better than others, looming larger on the work stage. Much like the classic advantage of height, speaker view underscores power differentials, but unlike height advantage, it can be fought for and won by going all in on high word count. Speaker View invites a verbal tug-of-war for dominance and control.

Choose Gallery View, and the metaphor changes dramatically. Depending on your age, looking into the squares of faces on your screen may transport you to the Beatles’ Let It Be album cover, the Brady Bunch title sequence, or the layout of Hollywood Squares (sadly, empty references for the vast majority of undergraduates). Gallery View can make us part of a less patriarchal and seemingly more democratic family, members of the band, in the club, on the team and, not least of all, classmates. Gallery View equalizes speaker and listeners, and it creates community based upon equal visual play.

In Gallery View, we see ourselves in the midst of our communities, no more and no less important than any other members. We also see ourselves head on, equalized not only by the amount of visual space we take up vis-à-vis others, but by the mostly identical angle of our webcams. No more front-row teacher’s pet or hiding in the back. No more fighting to see around your colleagues’ heads in a meeting or lecture -- we are all right there, the same distance apart, the same perspective, like soldiers ready for duty. There is no longer the power seat in the conference room -- the chair next to the boss. There is no longer an architectural pecking order that makes it harder for the soft-spoken and hesitant to be heard. Just unmute, start speaking and your frame glows, letting everyone know who’s talking now.

Much more than Speaker View, Gallery View encourages those who want to stand out to make their bids for attention with creative, whimsical and eye-catching background images. Many students and colleagues we have spent hours and days with in stressful Zoom classes and meetings have made the virtual background option nothing less than a spectator sport. Appearing in the gaping jaws of a killer shark or perched amidst Magritte’s British bowler-wearing, umbrella-toting businessmen, our colleagues give us a glimpse of their imaginations, hobbies and sense of self. Gallery View not only lets us see ourselves and each other in an evenhanded way, but it can give us new views into the imaginative worlds of those who we may have ignored.

Maybe this is the desperate diversion of COVID-19 times, the shut-in shenanigans that we will remember with vague embarrassment when we all meet again in classrooms and department meetings. Or maybe Gallery View can be a state of mind we carry with us. Maybe it can help us rethink deeply ingrained hierarchies and habits. Maybe it can encourage us to see and hear ourselves and one another anew.

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