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Did virtual norm cancel socializing?


By Santiago Muguiro

Some people have grown comfortable with the new virtual norm.

This comfortability though is not necessarily good. Others are too critical of it, worrying that this virtual norm will persist after the pandemic.

Here’s why that is highly unlikely: the human brain.

Virtual communication is tiring, even more so than normal communication. Although it seems absurd, it’s true. Zoom meetings are attended via a screen, often from a comfortable chair. And this is a part of the problem. In fact, this is so present that it even has its own slang term now: Zoom fatigue.

Humans have evolved as social beings, meaning that the process of communication is natural and unconscious, so it requires very little energy. The brain unconsciously picks up on and decodes nonverbal cues -- for example, if the other person is fidgeting, or makes no eye contact, etc. Then, the only thing left to do consciously is decoding the spoken words.

In a virtual environment, though, the brain needs to focus more on the words that are being said to properly understand the message.

On Zoom, people are visible from the shoulders up; thus, hand gestures and other nonverbal cues are rarely visible. If connection is spotty, interaction is even more limited because facial expressions are no longer a reliable source of cues. Virtual meetings also pose a multitasking problem, augmenting one of the issues the internet has always posed for learning: continuous partial attention. It impedes your concentration by overwhelming you by

“throwing” too much information at you at once.

For example, you’re reading an article about the Second World War, and you come to a section that talks about the Battle of Normandy. You know what the battle was about, but you think you could learn more about it, so you click on the hyperlink. You become distracted.

By repeating this, again and again, you are letting your brain get used to not reading an article completely, making it increasingly difficult to stay concentrated. This is what happens when your brain is trying to decode the people in virtual meetings. All participants appear on the screen, overwhelming the brain of the viewer.

Perhaps one day we will become used to this, but given how long humanity has lived with in-person socialization, it will not be any time soon.

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