Video Calling in Long-Distance Relationships: The Opportunistic use of
Audio/Video Distortions as a Relational Resource
The University of Queensland
Video calling is now a realistic option for couples in distance relationships. This
paper explores whether audio/video distortions block intimate relational talk. From a
naturalistic two-month trial of couples trying video calling to maintain their distance
relationships, it is found that couples can opportunistically use audio/video distortions as
a relational resource rather than simply treating them as a blocking or outside of
relational talk. First, technological mediation can be treated as relevant to disambiguating
whether the repair involves simple content repetition or a more complex relational issue.
Second, distortions can be treated as resources for relational parody and teasing. It is
argued that the opportunistic use of distortions as a relational resource extends Hutchby’s
(2001b) notion of technologized interaction, in which technology frames but does not
determine social action. Rather than proposing yet another model of communication that
includes more detail about noise as deviance that must be remedied, or taking an
undifferentiated approach to distortion as ‘trouble’, the technologized interaction
approach broadens our conceptions of online relationships as involving the use of
technological features to a more holistic sense of technological mediation being part and
parcel of maintaining online relationships.
The Next Best Thing To Being There?
While by no means ubiquitous, video calling hardware and software have
penetrated far enough into institutional, personal, and mobile computing that, as of 2010,
See ofﬁcial version at: http://www.cios.org/www/ejcmain.htm
To be published in The Electronic Journal of Communication / La Revue
Electronic de Communication 2013 22 (1)
PEW Internet reports that 23% of US Internet users have tried video calling in one form
or another (Rainie & Zickuhr, 2010). In the personal domain, video calling is now a
realistic communication option for couples in distance relationships (Neustaedter &
Greenberg, 2011) who are looking for “the next best thing to being there” (Molnar, 1969)
However, audio/video distortions are still common due to the limitations of consumer-
level Internet connections (especially Wi-Fi): audio and video can be choppy, clipped,
muffled, missing, lagged, blurry, frozen, or desynchronized.
All of these distortions impact upon the fundamental communicative requirement
of establishing and maintaining a connection with a co-participant (Laver, 1975;
Goodwin 1981; Schegloff, 1986; Kendon, 1990). The research question guiding this
paper is whether such audio/video distortions block intimate relational talk. From a
naturalistic two-month trial of couples trying video calling to maintain their distance
relationships, it is found that couples can opportunistically use audio/video distortions as
a relational resource rather than simply treating them as a blocking or outside of
relational talk. First, technological mediation can be treated as relevant to disambiguating
whether the repair involves simple content repetition or a more complex relational issue.
Second, distortions can be treated as resources for relational parody and teasing.
The paper situates the problem of distortion in video calling through an
exploration of several literatures: video calling in relational contexts; video calling and
operational distortions; operational distortions within the frame of affordances and
constraints; and repairs in co-present and video calling interactions. The methods are
discussed with a special emphasis on the naturalistic recording. The findings are laid out
in two large sections: disambiguating content repair in the context of relationally
sensitive talk and then distortion as a resource for relational parody and teasing. A short
conclusion section discusses the resourceful treatment of ‘troubling’ technology.
Video Calling in Relational Contexts
Much early video calling research was conducted experimentally in laboratory
settings (e.g. Chapanis et al., 1972), largely because of infrastructural requirements.
However, a rich body of family, friend, and relational video calling field research has
been developing from the early 2000s, coinciding with the widespread deployment of
consumer-level broadband connections and cheaper hardware and software. The family
has been a primary research focus. Researchers have investigated the ways in which
video calling can be used to overcome geographical separation of family units (Judge et
al., 2011), the easing of children’s anxieties due to divorce (Yarosh & Abowd, 2011;
Yarosh et al., 2008), how personal presence and portrayal can be improved (Chatting et
al., 2006), the nature of mediated play (Yarosh & Kwikkers, 2011; Follmer et al. 2010),
and the different sense of video mediated conversation versus sharing a window of
ongoing life (Judge & Neustaedter, 2010). In the broader domestic context it has been
shown that it takes considerable effort required to initiate, run, and troubleshoot domestic
video calls (Kirk, Sellen, & Cao, 2010; Ames, et al., 2010).
Common across much of the family research, and in the more nascent relational
video calling research (Neustaedter & Greenberg, 2011), is the notion of a re-imagined
and re-accountable sense of intimacy. This has been called “presence-in-absence”
(Howard et al, 2006) or “intimacy at a distance” (Hutchby, 2001b). Whatever it is termed,
central to the concept is the notion that research into online relationships should not treat
technology as simply a container of relationships or seek to understand only the
perceptions of variably rich transmission of relational material. Rather, it should seek to
explore how users develop specialised practices in response to contingencies of
mediation. These stem from a variety of issues in the communicative situation; from the
affordances and constraints of camera and microphone placement, through negotiating
opening and closing phases that display sufficient intimacy while dealing with technical
issues, to the complexity of scheduled versus spontaneous intimacy. This paper
contributes to this body of research on practices of mediated intimacy in video calling by
considering not the features of video calling, but users’ management of its failings.
Video Calling and Operational Distortions
It has been well established by the Computer-Mediated Communication (CMC)
field that people develop ways to display emotion when channels and cues are
constrained (see overview in Walther, 2011). However, research into operational
distortions such as audio/video distortion has tended to focus on perceptions and task
effects rather than the moment-to-moment participant management.
The HCI video-mediated communication literature contains a deep body of
findings on users’ responses perceptual limitations of video calling. Despite the apparent
centrality of video to video calling, users prefer instantaneous audio, even at the cost of
desynchronization with video (Isaacs & Tang, 2003). Users are also very sensitive to
audio degradation (Watson & Sasse 2000). We do know from experimental results that
poor quality video can lead to less fluent speech (Monk & Watts, 1995), increased
caution (Jackson, et al., 2000), and make it harder to detect lying (Horn, Karasik &
Olsen, 2002), but we know less about how users actually manage those issues as part of
the conversational business. Both Heath & Luff (1991) and Dourish et al. (1996, 2001)
have illustrated asymmetries in getting attention in a media spaces, but these are the
result of design constraints, not operational distortions. One of the few studies to have
investigated the turn-by-turn results of operational distortions in video calling is Ruhleder
& Jordan’s (2001) demonstration that network latency distorts the interactional timing
associated with preference organization of turns at talk. For example, an apparent delay
in answering a question may lead to the questioner treating the response as dispreferred.
Quality of Service (QoS) research includes some studies that contrast network
differences among consumer video calling services, but they do not observe users’
management of those differences (Lu et al., 2010). Hashimoto & Ishibashi (2006) report
that network latency annoys players in rock-paper-scissors played over video calls, but
while they report thresholds of latency detection, they do not report the players’ practices
for managing that latency.
Technologized Interaction: Treating Operational Distortions as Within the Frame
of Affordances and Constraints
Gibson’s (1979) ecological concept of affordances was first popularized in HCI
by Norman (1988, 1999) and Gaver (1992), both of whom where searching for ways to
explore how material properties and limitations are related to action. Gibson argues that
the definition of what the object is depends on its stable actionable material properties,
which he calls affordances, but because actors define what an object is through
interaction, the possibilities for action can be creatively employed. However, not
everything done or not done with an object is related to its material properties. Norman
(1999) has argued that objects may have perceived affordances that relate to logical,
cultural, or conventional possibilities for action rather than stable actionable material
properties. The concept of affordances has been taken up in HCI research to explore how
designs suggest (or fail to suggest) actions to users (e.g., McGrenre & Ho, 2000;
Affordances have an obvious counterpart in constraints: stable material properties
of objects that limit action. Constraints on action may be both material and social, and
may be the result of either deliberate and accidental design decisions. Operational
problems such as audio/video distortions, however, tend to be treated as distinct from
constraints in this body of research, perhaps because they result from computational
infrastructure issues (e.g. the packet-switched nature of the internet or the complexities of
audio/video codecs) rather than user-level design issues. However, I contend that
audio/video distortions are a fundamental part of the experience of video calling—at least
at present—and thus should be considered within the frame of affordances and
In so doing, I am employing Hutchby’s (2001b) notion of “technologized
interaction”: that participants enact social action that treats the constraints of technology
as a framing but not determining social action. This is not the same as arguing for yet
another model of communication that includes more detail about ‘noise’ as deviance that
must be remedied. Rather, the technologized interaction approach refocuses attention
from operational distortions as externally imposed effect to how operational distortions
are a participant’s concern. Specifically, they are a logical extension of the omnipresent
orientation to repair in co-present interaction.
Repair in Co-Present and Video Calling Interaction
This article takes an empirical phenomenological approach to investigating how
audio/video distortions come to constitute part of how couples enact their relationship,
drawing on research recommendations from Ethnomethodology (EM), Conversation
Analysis (CA), and Membership Categorisation Analysis (MCA). EM investigates how
the local production of practical social understandings is a situated achievement
(Garfinkel, 2002). CA focuses on the sequential methods of situated achievements,
showing how interactional turns are treated as proposing slots for next actions and next
turns ratify, modify, or resist the understandings of prior actions (Schegloff, 2007;
Clayman & Gill, 2005; Sacks, 1992a). MCA explores the practices by which members
propose who they are to one another and states of social order through various methods
of direct and indirect categorical links or boundaries (Fitzgerald, 2012; Stokoe, 2012;
Housley & Fitzgerald, 2009).
EM/CA/MCA argue that interpersonal intimacy does not consist of stable
categories or solely internal attitudes towards others (Raymond & Heritage, 2006;
Pomerantz & Mandelbaum, 2004; Egbert, 2004). Since relationships are as much an
interactional achievement as any other social fact, we should expect that audio/video
distortions are incorporated into a local relational episteme (Heritage, 2012) that
encompasses the full experience of technological mediation.
EM/CA/MCA claim validity on the basis that social understandings are
methodically made visible by one participant to another in interaction. As such,
researchers can access the practices of sharing understandings in ways similar to that of
participants. EM/CA/MCA’s attention to practical methods of technology engagement
(Suchman, 1987; Dourish, 2001) are thus well suited to analyze the in situ management
of audio/video distortions of the intimate content of couples’ video calling. This is
especially the case for managing audio/video distortion, as it is central to EM/CA/MCA
that the repair of production/hearing/meaning troubles is reported and achieved within the
same sequential stream as other interactional action (Schegloff, Jefferson, & Sacks, 1977;
As Greiffenhagen & Watson (2009, p. 69) explain, “what counts as ‘error’ or a
‘mistake’ is not given by the psychological functioning of individuals, but is instead
constituted in and through interaction between co-participants.” CA treats the way
participants cope with understanding troubles as integral to the mechanics of interaction
and often as a resource or devices for social action (Lerner & Kitzinger, 2012; Sacks,
Schegloff, & Jefferson, 1974). People are experienced with repair and, indeed, while
understanding troubles do occur, people are very active problem solvers. As Suchman,
Blomberg & Orr (1999, p. 394-395) argue, “conversations among people succeed not
because of the absence of troubles of understanding, but rather due to a wealth of
resources available for their collective identification and repair”.
Schegloff, Jefferson, & Sacks (1977) argue that repair in interaction is organized
to prefer self-repair. Speakers have first access to repair initiation because speakers and
recipients hear the same turn produced in the same way at the same time, but speaker
have the more direct access to what might have been said but for some form of error.
Speakers therefore often get to set the agenda for the repair. Recipients do not have to
abide by that agenda, but they will have to respond to it.
Video calling changes the access to the experienced production of turns and hence
possible repair orientations. Speakers experience the turn in its real-time production but
recipients experience an electronic reproduction of the turn. When distortions occur,
speakers experience their turn produced flawlessly but recipients experience the same
turn as distorted. Since only recipients have direct access to the experience of distortion,
recipients, not speakers, have first access to repair initiation. Recipients are thus
materially afforded the first access to the agenda of repair, while speakers are materially
constrained to a position of second response. Further, the range of orientations will be
materially different in video chat interaction. When distortion occurs, obviously, the
biggest change to repair will be that distortion can be attributed to technology, which has
ramifications for the kind of repair that can be attempted. Thus there are two sets of
material frames for interaction when distortion occurs: transmission/reception and
distortion of transmission/reception. That being said, participants are free to generate
meaning using these frames in any way they wish, hence mediation and distortion are
interactional resources for participants.
The fundamental responsibility of social analysis is to explicate social order at
whatever level it can be found (Schegloff, 1987). In EM/CA/MCA research, the emphasis
is on finding principles of context-free but context-sensitive interactional practices
(Lerner, 2003). With few exceptions, these practices are to be endogenous, found either
in naturally occurring talk (rather than controlled lab or survey situations) or in a
“perspicuous setting” (Garfinkel & Wieder, 1992, p.184), that is “a setting that in its
specificity and uniqueness allows us to highlight methodic and systematic features”
(Mondada, 2007, p. 198). For this project, the goal was to explore whether and how how
participants oriented to endogeonously-arising distortions as an interactional issue in
long-distance relational maintenance.
To that end, couples in distance relationships were recruited by flyers and email in
the Northeastern USA, supplied with webcams and video calling software, and asked to
try video calling at home for two months. The six self-selected couples that ended up
participating all belonged to a distinct demographic: native English speakers, under 21,
college-educated, and primarily white. While not representative of the US population,
this group was reasonably representative of well-resourced members of the Millennial
generation (Taylor & Keeter, 2010), who have grown up with technological mediation
and represent the future of mainstream users’ understandings of technology. Internet
users aged 18-29 are twice as likely (29%) to have participated in video calling than
Internet users age 65 or older (15%) (Rainie & Zickuhr, 2010).
The couples were asked to talk for at least 20 minutes, once a week, for two
months, on their own timetable. No tasks were required and there were no other controls
apart from minimum technology standards. With their consent, an automatic remote
recording system captured all video calls without any effort on their part. This
combination of task and technological freedom maximized the ecological validity of the
recordings, allowing for very naturalistic experiences (see Rintel, 2007 for details).
Since the recording system was effectively a third party in a three member group
call, it did not allow for analysis of individualized latency or audio/visual asymmetry at
each end of the conference in the manner of much prior videoconferencing research (e.g.
Ruhleder & Jordan, 2001) and media space research (e.g. Harrison, 2009). However, it
would have been almost impossible to record such naturalistic intimate relational talk—
usually in bedrooms—had recording devices been used at either end of the call (see
Rintel, 2007). Further, since the goal was to see what participants explicitly treated as
relevant when coping with audio/video distortion, the precision of the recording system’s
timing was not as important as the sequential and categorical work, which was very
adequately captured. The recording system did not capture the entirety of each
participant’s screen, nor interaction in other media, so it is not claimed that this project
captured the entirety of online relational maintenance, including some talk about
distortions on mobile telephones and text-based chat, but, again, this was a trade-off for
the naturalistic recordings and the tool was adequate for the task.
As mentioned above, the notion of audio/video distortions as a material issue for
the conduct of distance relationships via video calling arose endogenously from the
experiences of the couples. Altogether the six couples each had between 5 to 11 calls, in
which a median of around 8% of the time was spent coping with distortions. As reported
in an earlier report on this project (Rintel 2010), 145 total cases of coping with distortions
were collected, which were broadly separable into technology-oriented remedies (57
cases; 39.3%), content-oriented remedies (42 cases; 29.7%), and non-remedial accounts
(46 cases; 31%). This paper draws only on examples from content-oriented remedies and
non-remedial accounts, and of these concentrates primarily on illustrations from the two
of the six couples who experienced the most variety of audio/video distortions, with some
brief examples from the other couples. These are not the sole examples of distortions
used as relational resources (see also Rintel 2010, 2013), but they are some of the most
closely related cases.
This small N is common in highly-interactionally-focused HCI studies on video
calling (e.g. Heath & Luff, 1991; Ruhleder & Jordan, 2001; Licoppe & Dumoulin, 2010),
primarily because while EM/CA/MCA research does have some examples of very large
corpus studies (e.g. Stivers, 2005), participant numbers and example numbers are usually
fairly small, favoring highly-granular inductive analysis of a few ‘telling’ cases that
illustrate moment-to-moment operation of interactional principles (ten Have, 2007, p.38).
Fitzgerald (2012, p.309) has also argued that while large collection-based studies have
value for showing the regularities of membership categorization practices, those
"…principles regarding data collection and building collections are irrelevant to an ad
hoc collection or an ethnomethodologically grounded thick description of a single case in
which the layered depth and texture of members’ category work is explored." This article,
then, focuses on in telling cases that illustrate the layered sets of interactional, relational,
and technological orientation choices in moments of audio/video distortion.
Disambiguating Content Repair in the Context of Relationally Sensitive Talk
Repair of audio distortions
Content-oriented remedies of distortion comprised an aggregate 29% of the
management practices of all couples, and they were overwhelmingly oriented to repairing
distorted audio content (Rintel, 2010). In most instances of audio distortion the reason
and form of repair were treated as unambiguous. Since speakers could not hear their own
distorted sound, hearers had to alert speakers to the need to repair. Repair initiators
indicated a need for clarification of locatable content, and the repair was a production of
content with no further discussion. Example 1 and 2 are representative of many instances
of audio distortion management. In the transcripts, P→ indicates the distortion, I→
indicates the repair initiator, and R→ the repair turn.
In Example 1, Hal is reporting the previous night’s events, but is not aware that
part of his story cut out (P→; line 1). After Hal’s turn is hearably complete, Eva initiates
repair, locating the problem as being with the immediately prior referent (I→; line 2). Hal
repairs by repeating his entire prior turn (R→; line 3). The repair initiator is treated as
unambiguous and the repair is accepted without explanation. Neither the nature of the
content nor the technological cause is treated as relevant to accomplishing the repair.
In Example 2, Kim’s repair initiator (I→; line 11) refers to the fact that she did
not hear Cam, but she does not specifically treat technology at issue and nor does Cam in
his simple repetition of his turn (R→; line 12).
However, distortion management may be treated differently when the topic of
conversation is relationally sensitive. As Example 3 illustrates, distortions during
relational topics may require disambiguation as to whether the repair initiator referred to
distorted content, which just needs to be supplied for the conversation to continue, or an
issue with the nature of the content, requiring relational discussion. The fact that the
conversation was technologically mediated is both the reason and the resource for this
disambiguation. In addition to the indicators used in the transcript above, RT→ indicates
a repair that includes a candidate (Pomerantz, 1988) technological cause and Y→
indicates confirmation of the candidate.
In this example, Des and Kay are making plans for a vacation in another city with
a group of friends. Shared vacations are very important to long-distance couples because
they represent times to be together and special freedom from home responsibilities. When
incomes are limited, as they were for the participants, planning shared vacations often
involves negotiation as to whether the couple will have their own hotel room, and thus be
able to be as intimate as they wish, or share a hotel room with others to save money but
have more limited intimacy. Here, Des proposes that a third person might stay on the
couch in their hotel room, ending his turn with a downward intonation and in-breath that
indicate a completion point (line 1). However, from Kay’s perspective a large proportion
of Des’s proposal is dropped out (P→; line 1), so she initiates repair (I→; line 2).
Unlike Example 1, in which Eva initiated repair with a search for clearly locatable
content (“The what”; Example 1, line 2), Kay’s repair initiator “Wait what?” is more
interruptive, calling for both a halt and some form of repair. Des initially orients to the
repair in terms of Kay missing part or all of his immediately prior turn and begins to
repeat it (RT→; “Someone can probably[ sl]eep on-”; line 3). Three words into Des’s
repair, Kay overlaps Des with the change of state marker “Oh” (line 5). This “Oh” is
likely to be a retrospective indicator of understanding the repaired turn in the midst of its
repeated production. However, since this occurs in overlap with Des’s repair, Des may
not hear Kay clearly. Whether he does or not, this second overlap from Kay is potentially
indicative that Des’s turn-in-progress may not be on the right track. This, together with
the “wait” of “wait what?” seems to lead Des to re-orient his repair design. Des cuts off
his content repetition to request confirmation of a candidate technological reason for
Kay’s problem indication (RT→; “on- did it cut out?”; line 3). Des’s guess at a
technological problem is an artful device for determining whether he should simply
repeat the content or assume that the content is understood but that the sleeping
arrangements are a matter of relational sensitivity that needs to be addressed. As it turns
out, Kay’s confirmation of Des’s candidate (Y→; line 5) provides Des with the go ahead
to repeat the content (line 6).
While the repair resources used by Des and Kay are not dissimilar to that of Eva
and Hal and Kim and Cam, as well as being common to repair initiation and design
across many media and contexts, there are two points that make Example 3 stand out.
First, only Des, in example 3, directly invokes technology, in his use of “cut out”, a direct
reference to technological mediation. This is quite different to Eva’s use of open class
repair (“The what?”; Example 1, line 2) and Kim’s reference to hearing (Example 2, line
11). Indeed, even Kay’s repair initiator “Wait what?” (Example 3, line 2) is open class,
even though it is more urgent than Eva’s “The what?”. Hal, Cam, and even Des initially,
provide simple repetitions in response to these repair initiators. Further, the reason for the
repair is not treated as relevant in Example 1 and Example 2. Example 3, by contrast, Des
chooses to stop his first repair and check on its provenance in a context of a relationally-
sensitive issue. Thus the potential for distortion of talk by the technology, and hence its
specific reference in disambiguation, is of particular relevance when talk is sensitive. In
this case the sensitivity involves the relationship, which is the business of the call,
although we might see similar technological disambiguation in sensitive talk across a
range of contexts. It should also be noted that the video was not treated as relevant to the
disambiguation process in this example and, indeed, across most of the couples (Rintel,
2010), with limited exceptions. One such exception was when relational content itself
Repair of video distortions
Across all the couples the repair of distorted visual content was even more
strongly linked to relational issues than repair of distorted audio content. Distorted,
frozen gestures and facial expressions were overwhelmingly let pass in this trial (Rintel,
2010), despite the impact we might expect them to have on both sequential and epistemic
use of expressions and gestures. As such, those occasions when visuals became a direct
object of repair stood out, and, as with Example 3 above, they occurred in the context of
specifically relational material.
While recipients were very sensitive to audio distortion and thus tended to initiate
repair, recipients were far less sensitive to visual distortion. Often recipients did not even
treat the visuals—including visual distortion—as relevant, responding only to the last
verbal turn. Speakers, on the other hand, knew that they had performed a visual action
(such as a gesture or facial expression), found recipients unresponsive to that visual
action, checked on its reception, and then worked to have the visual taken up as part of
Example 4 shows this in the case of a missed wink from Kay, designed to soften a
relational tease, leading to a lot of work to ensure its uptake by Des. In addition to the
indicators use above, C→ indicates a candidate answer question and Q→ indicates a
request for report.
Figure 1. Case021 on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=voVNzExIpPA
The example begins with Kay’s joking complaint that Des’s mouth looks blurry
(lines 4-5). Des responds with his own complaint that his sound is choppy and wish that
the system worked better (lines 6-7). Kay agrees with Des’s complaint and then proposes
a teasing upshot (Drew, 1987) that cuts to the heart of why the couple is trying PV: “M:e
too but it’s not [. this is why] you can’t date people far away” (line 8). She then smiles
and raises her eyebrows (line 10) to indicate that this is a tease. While Des agreed with
Kay’s assessment (line 9), Des responds to the upshot reasoning with a choked laugh that
indicates that he understands the upshot as a joke but does not find it especially funny
(line 11). To further defuse her tease, Kay mugs at the camera with two exaggerated
winks, the first of which appears clearly (line 12). The second is disrupted; she appears to
move toward the camera, freeze, then move back (P→; line 13).
Des’s ironic assessment “very funny” (line 14) is a verbal continuation of his
ironic choked laugh but does not indicate. Kay’s request for candidate positive
assessment treats Des as not having provided an adequate or expected response to the
winks, and is thus a repair initiator (I→; “Did you like that?”, line 15). By asking if Des
liked the winks, she is less interested in an actual assessment of the winks’ ‘likeability’
than Des understanding the winks as indications that the prior turn was a tease that is now
being softened. Of course, Kay does not know that the winks were troubled, only that she
did not immediately receive the expected response and that she is trying to defuse a
relational tease. Thus she has a strong warrant to ensure that Des sees the winks.
Des’s response to Kay’s candidate is to request a report of what he was supposed
to assess (Q→; “What’d you do?”, line 16). Kay does not speak but produces another
exaggerated wink (R→; line 17). Sensitive to the need to report on a correctly
apprehended visual, Des proposes a candidate check that he was supposed to see a wink
(C→; line 18). Kay confirms his candidate with an accompanying heavily exaggerated
wink and “mhm” (Y→; line 19). Des’s laughter (line 20) finally provides Kay with
positive assessment of her visual action that shows him to be following along with Kay.
The pursuit of this visual content as relevant specifically to its relational context
takes place within a larger instance of the couple explicitly orienting to the two other
forms of distortion: blurry video (Kay) and choppy sound (Des). Technology-oriented
remedy (moving the applications image/sound quality controls) was very much explicitly
on the table right before and after this instance. But in the moment, the relational tease
which specifically invokes the problems of using video calling to maintain the long-
distance relationship is treated as the most relevant repairable.
Distortion as a Resource for Relational Parody and Teasing
Almost a third (31.7%) of couples’ reactions to distortion involved accounting for
the disturbed connection but not attempting to remedy the content or technology issue
(Rintel, 2010). In terms of opportunistic relational talk, sometimes this was as simple as
using attention to distorted visuals to deliver an indirect compliment (lines 10-12). Ora’s
basis for her assessment is that the technological shortcomings of the visuals are to be let
pass when judged against its relational gains (see also Rintel, 2010).
In contrast to situations such as Example 4, where visual content was repaired
because it was relevant to a relational tease, among the non-remedial reactions to
distortion were several instances in which the participants opportunistically capitalized on
visual distortions as a resource for relational parody and teasing.
Visual distortion as a resource for relational teasing
Example 6 illustrates that frozen video can form a practical resource for
accomplishing relational teasing. Example 6 begins with an attempt at content remedy of
visual trouble (akin to that of Example 4). The couple has been moving to conversational
close and Hal’s video froze about one minute prior to this case and remains frozen
throughout. This distortion is used by Hal to transform the repair attempt itself into an
tease. Hal describes throwing Eva’s blown kiss into the garbage precisely because his
frozen video allows him the creative freedom to describe his action as he wishes.
Figure 3. Case 079 on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AaZNbIriTQE
After producing a gesture that the recording shows as only a flash of her hand
(P→; line 6), Eva immediately checks to see if Hal received it (I→; line 7) without
waiting for Hal to respond. Without a turn from Hal, something else must be cueing
Eva’s check. As has been noted above, couples only checked on missing visual content
when it was explicitly relational, and this example fits that model. However, it is
additionally possible that Hal’s frozen video is such an overt disruption of the visuals that
Eva may be projecting her own inability to see Hal onto a possible inability for Hal to see
her. Either way, Eva explicitly orients to Hal missing the blown kiss, and after Hal
requests repetition, she does so in the clear (R→; line 9).
Hal indicates reception of the blown kiss with a sincere expression of appreciation
(line 10), and then builds in this appreciation by describing his performance of catching
the kiss but appends a check of Eva’s reception of it in the form of candidate doubt based
on the known technological distortion of being frozen (“Look I caught it I dunno if you
can see that” (TC→; line 12). Eva verifies that she did not see Hal’s action (line 13),
which Hal proposes as a negative (line 14). Hal’s turns describing the caught kiss and the
misfortune of Eva not seeing it ratifies the relational importance of completing the
blowing and catching a kiss sequence, especially as part of conversational closure.
Hal’s assessment proposes what has been implicit all along: that technology has
been to blame for the missing of gestures, not the intentional actions of Eva or himself.
However, it also provides Hal with evidence that he cannot be seen. As such, Hal is now
able to build a performance around what can and can not be seen. Hal does so by
claiming the performance of a physical action that builds on the prior repaired relational
sequence, claiming that he “threw it in the garbage” (J→; line 16). The gesture is unlikely
to have actually physically occurred, but because of the value that the couple ascribes to
blowing and catching kisses, this claim is a distinct relational tease. It could be argued
that this kind of fake described gesture and associated tease is not limited either to video
calling or to instances of distortion. It is always possible to claim the performance of an
unseen physical action on the telephone or VOIP, and even in fully functional video
calling one can move out of or cover the field of view and claim the performance of
action. However, it is not the mere fact of lack of co-participant visual access that is
important here. Rather, what is important is that Hal changes his continuity management
orientation from distortion as repairable to distortion as an interactional resource for an
intimate tease. Not only is the distortion a resource for Hal’s tease, but the tease itself is a
resource for framing the distortion as part of closing the conversation in a relationally
intimate manner and thus not as an ongoing problem that requires further technological
remedy. To be sure, the adequacy of the technology is on the table, but only in so far as it
can be blended into the activity of closure.
Distortion as a creative spark used in combination with other visual constraints
In most of the examples above distortions are used as resources in and of
themselves. However, as with any interactional resource, distortions can be combined
with other affordances or constraints to achieve social action. In the final example of this
paper, Des combines an initial visual distortion (blurriness) with one of the fundamental
constraints of video calling: that each caller has a very limited and generally fixed field of
view of the other. Example 7 begins with Kay laughingly complaining about Des’s lips
being so blurry that they appear not to move when he talks (line 2). In response to this
report of distortion, Des combines the concept of the distortion with the known-in-
common concept of Kay’s constrained field of view to produce an extended
ventriloquism parody about an imaginary prurient third party (lines 5-27). In addition to
the indicators above, in this transcript J→↓ indicates a joke that begins in one turn and
continues through turns below.
Figure 2. Case020 on YouTube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=stZ_V8cjVks
Des initially treats Kay’s laughing report of his unmoving lips (I→: line 2) as an
opportunity to use a joke to ratify that the brief visual distortion is not disruptive to
conversational continuity (J→↓: line 5 and 7). He could have ended at this point, treating
the entire distortion situation as passed and no other conversational activity has been
interrupted. However, the ratified non-disruptiveness of the distortion combined with
Kay’s laughter provides Des with a choice: to move to another topic or to capitalize on
the current amusement as a conversational activity in and of itself. He chooses the latter,
first by two efforts at ventriloquism (“I’m not moving my lips right now”; lines 5 and 7),
followed by an intonation change to represent an off-screen third party claiming to be in
love with Kay (“I love you Kay”; line 9). This begins an extended ventriloquism act in
which the off-screen voice makes increasingly inappropriate suggestions to Kay while
Des tries to quiet the voice and Kay somewhat plays along. In enacting the ‘off-screen
voice’, Des is implicitly merging two different constraints of technological mediation—
the momentary visual distortion and the ongoing field of view limitation—to play with
the social meaning of how a voice could be heard when an image does not imply
connection with the voice.
Des extends the parody by proposing that the third party is attempting to summon
Kay (line 11), but failing a direct response to the third party from Kay he moves to
another trope: the third party as voyeur (lines 13, 15-19) and his own entitlement to stop
the third party’s voyeuristic requests. Des knows that Kay’s can only see a limited field
of view on his end, and can not move that field of view, so he is able to create the
ventriloquism act by looking at the camera as he performs the ‘off-screen’ voice with
limited mouth movement, in contrast to turning his head to look off-camera and clearly
moving his mouth to perform his own turns.
The act provides an opportunity for Des to do parodic sexual talk in Kay’s
presence. Des’s talk is clearly not directly intimate in the romantic sense, but sexual
parody involving one’s interlocutor certainly proposes a high level of relational
closeness. In essence, Des has found an opportunity to demonstrate affection and
closeness without having to manufacture a more serious moment of intimacy or wait for a
conversational phase (such as closing) when declarations of intimacy are often enacted
(Drew & Chilton, 2000).
The act reaches its peak in the ‘off-screen voice’ expressing a desire to see Kay
naked (line 17-18), which could be both part of Des’s joke and a test by Des to see
whether this might, in fact, lead to a mediated sexual experience. Kay, in a tone of joking
resignation, verbally agrees to the request (line 20) but makes no physical move to
remove her clothing, ratifying the parody and allowing the relational fun to continue.
Although her agreement is proposed as a joke, Des immediately proposes negation on the
basis that they are being recorded (line 21), which leads to discussion of being watched
(line 22-27) and movement into another topic.
While such a parody is obviously not original to Des, nor revolutionary simply
because it is occurring in the video calling context, it does illustrate that “intimacy at a
distance”, as Hutchby (2001) calls it, is not simply a matter of the transmission of
intimate action. The fact of technological mediation is quite apparent to both parties but
its material frame does not determine that talk. Rather, distortion is treated as an initial
creative impetus to an act that relies on the ongoing field of view limitation.
Conclusion: The Resourceful Treatment of ‘Troubling’ Technology
Sacks (1992, Vol. 2., pp. 548-549) famously argues that technology is “being
made at home with the rest of our world. And that's a thing that's routinely being done,
and it’s the source of the failure of technocratic dreams that if only we introduced some
fantastic new communication machine, the world will be transformed. Where what
happens is that the object is made at home in the world that has whatever organisation it
already has.” This article illustrates that couples in long-distance relationships may
choose to treat audio/video distortions as not mere barriers to their relationship but rather
as bound up with how technological mediation plays a role in enacting their relationship.
Managing conversational continuity during distortions involved two opportunistic uses of
the distortion as a relational resource. First, technological mediation can be treated as
relevant to disambiguating whether the repair involves simple content repetition or a
more complex relational issue. Second, distortions can be treated as resources for
relational intimacy, in this case parody and teasing. The fact that the contingent relevance
of technology and intimacy appeared and was resolved in fleeting moments should not be
taken as an indication of irrelevance. Conversational turns are routinely exchanged faster
than is apparently strategically possible; what matters is that they are produced as
relevant to the participants (Sacks, 1992, Vol. 1, p.11).
While audio/video distortions are unlikely to be preferred resources for enacting a
relational talk, the couples’ ability to incorporate them as an interactional and
interpersonal resource speaks a critical issue in technology research: that categories such
as ‘trouble’, ‘disruption’, or ‘failure’ need to be very carefully applied. The technology
adoption (Venkatesh, Davis, & Morris, 2007) and Diffusion of Innovation (e.g. Rogers,
2003) literatures tend to treat operational problems such as audio/video distortion in an
undifferentiated fashion, as assumedly negative, and as a threshold issue above which
they might not matter. This has parallels to Button’s (1993) argument that a great deal of
socially focused research treats technology as yet another platform in which standard
sociological or psychological issues (power, gender, relationships etc.) are seen to play
out (e.g. see the overview of computer-mediated communication relationship research in
Tong & Walther, 2011). While we certainly do learn important things from such an
approach, Button argues that that people’s practical engagement with technology is often
curiously absent from such research (Button, 1993).
Rather than simply arguing that relational context is a moderating factor in coping
with distortions, this paper demonstrates the ongoing value of Button’s (1993) injunction
to demonstrate how “the facticity of technology is displayed, accounted for, and testified
to” (Button, 1993, p.11) as a resource for investigating online relationships. Hutchby’s
(2001b) notion of “technologized interaction” provides a foundational principle for just
such investigations: that participants enact social action that treats the constraints of
technology as a frame but not a determiner of social action. It is not being claimed that all
operational problems occasion relational talk, nor that all relational talk is occasioned by
operational problems. However, it is being claimed that resources for online relationships
extend beyond the deliberately designed and correctly operational affordances or
constraints of communication technologies. When audio/video distortions occur, long-
distance partners can choose to treat them as resources for fitting the current experience
into the organization of a world that involves necessarily mediated interaction.
Rather than taking an undifferentiated approach to distortion as ‘trouble’, or
simply refining a communicative model to include a more complex sense of noise, the
benefit of the technologized interaction approach is that it refocuses attention from
operational distortions as externally imposed effect to how operational distortions are a
participant’s concern; indeed, a logical extension of the omnipresent orientation to repair
in co-present interaction. In turn, this broadens our conceptions of constituting online
relationships as stemming primarily from technological features to a more holistic sense
that all facets of technological mediation—the good and the bad—are routinely managed
in the interactional business of maintaining online relationships.
Clearly this paper’s approach is limited to illustrative explanations of micro-level
social order. There are many questions that this approach can not explore, such as any
more generalizable regularities in reactions, variations in relational types, possible effects
on adoption, or on the manner in which take-up of more standard constraints matches up
with operational problems. That being said, the work does provide insights that can be
transferred to other contexts.
For technology designers there are several intertwined lessons about
communicative separability and holism. The findings show users treating the video and
audio channels of video calling separately, and even use the distortion of video as an
interactional resource as long as the audio continued to work. At the very least this
indicates a need to consider how each transmission channel relates to a communicative
channel that can be used for a task, and how, in turn, each transmission channel should
gracefully degrade in a heirachy of likely communicative task requirements. In a more
complex turn, though, designers also do not need to second-guess what users will do.
Rather, designers should provide users with ways to account for what channels are doing
and ways for users to make and act upon their own choices for the communicative task,
supporting the ways in which users fluidly move between treating mediation as more or
The lessons are somewhat similar for communication technology researchers,
especially those considering using communication technology interventions into existing
contexts. Consider telehealth contexts, for example. Along with medical requirements
(history-taking, current condition reports, diagnosis, and treatment) practitioners and
patients must establish a working consensus of technical, social, and medical connection.
In these situations, hoping that the technology will act as a transparent tool is, I would
argue, less valuable than deliberately treating it as part of the interaction. Given the
findings above of participants able to take a range of both distortions and
affordances/constraints in their stride as they conducted their relational interaction—as
we would expect given the omnipresent orientation to conversational repair—device
design, practitioner training, patient training, and consultation scripts should all build in
the recognition of mediation as relevant to conducting telehealth treatment. We might
hope, then, that rather than technology acting as a distraction pulling participants in and
out of potentially very sensitive medical tasks, that all users would orient to working with
mediation—even troubled mediation—as an inherently recognisable condition. Attention
to this might improve practitioner-patient rapport, instruction giving/reception, and, of
course, coping with the inevitable operational problems that accompany even the best
technology of intimacy at a distance.
Although now defunct, thanks go to Wave Three Inc. for providing the Session
software for this project. Thanks also go to the reviewers for their excellent suggestions
for improvements. I am also deeply grateful to Prof. Anita Pomerantz and Prof. Teresa
Harrison for their help.
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