Virtually in This Together – How Web-Conferencing Systems Enabled a
New Virtual Togetherness during the COVID-19 Crisis
1, Jan vom Brocke, Joshua Peter Handali, Markus Otto, Johannes Schneider
1 University of Liechtenstein, Liechtenstein
(janine.hacke | jan.vom.brocke | joshua.handali | markus.otto | firstname.lastname@example.org)
Regulations to contain the spread of COVID-19 have affected corporations, institutions, and individuals
to a degree that most people have never seen before. Information systems researchers have initiated a
discourse on information technology’s role in helping people manage this situation. This study informs
and substantiates this discourse based on an analysis of a rich dataset: Starting in March 2020, we
collected about 3 million tweets that document people’s use of web-conferencing systems (WCS) like
Zoom during the COVID-19 crisis. Applying text-mining techniques to Twitter data and drawing on
affordance theory, we derive five affordances of and five constraints to the use of WCS during the crisis.
Based on our analysis, our argument is that WCS emerged as a social technology that led to a new virtual
togetherness by facilitating access to everyday activities and contacts that were “locked away” because
of COVID-19-mitigation efforts. We find that WCS facilitated encounters that could not have taken
place otherwise and that WCS use led to a unique blending of various aspects of people’s lives. Using
our analysis, we derive implications and directions for future research to address existing constraints
and realise the potentials of this period of forced digitalisation.
Keywords: Web-conferencing, videoconferencing, crisis informatics, technology use, topic modelling,
Cite as: Hacker, J., vom Brocke, J., Handali, J., Otto, M., Schneider, J. (2020), Virtually in this Together – How
Web-Conferencing Systems Enabled a New Virtual Togetherness During the COVID-19 Crisis, in: European
Journal of Information Systems (EJIS), forthcoming.
Except the first author, authors are listed in alphabetical order.
Web-conferencing systems (WCS) like Zoom and Microsoft Teams have been around for some time.
First adopted in the business world to facilitate professional interactions between companies and
distributed work (Wilcox, 2000), WCS uses include distance education (e.g. Mupinga, 2005), telehealth
(e.g. Brecher, 2013), and more recently personal use, such as by long-distance families (e.g. Follmer et
al., 2010; King-O’Riain, 2015). Despite radical improvements in the infrastructure that underlies WCS,
such as faster internet connections and the widespread use of mobile devices, persistent technical issues
have led to every second video conference starting with “Can you hear me?” rather than “Hi, how are
you?” In addition, while it approximates face-to-face interactions, WCS has to some extent continued
to be perceived as a “second class” medium (Larsen, 2015), which created barriers to their widespread
implementation and use.
To contain the spread of COVID-19, governments around the world imposed regulations to restrict
physical meetings, mobility, and public life in general. While most people did not contract the infection,
their lives were dramatically disrupted as the lockdown locked away their everyday contacts and
activities. In this extreme situation, institutions and individuals alike responded by switching quickly
from physical and location-dependent interactions to virtual interactions. Soaring download numbers
and a higher number of daily meeting participants than ever before point to the central role of WCS like
Zoom in this transformation (Reuters, 2020). The use of WCS doubled between 27 March and 31 May
2020, rising to 24 percent of U.S. households (Consumer Technology Association, 2020). Not
surprisingly, the trend towards working from home whenever possible contributed to this increase
(Clutch.co, 2020), but people also started to use WCS to support the everyday activities related to school,
communities, friends, and families.
Against the background of drastic and widespread changes in people’s digital practices, this paper
explores people’s use of WCS during the COVID-19 crisis to explain the unique role of technology
during this crisis and derive recommendations for its use and further development. To this end, we
analysed Twitter communications about some of the WCS used most often (e.g. Zoom and Microsoft
Teams) that were generated during the lockdown period by performing topic modelling on a dataset of
about 3 million tweets posted from 23 March 2020 to 14 June 2020. Drawing on affordance theory, we
identify affordances and constraints arising from the use of WCS during the COVID-19 crisis.
The lockdown forced people to think about how to live their everyday lives while keeping their distance
from one another. Our study documents how people discovered new affordances in an existing
technology that helped them respond to the crisis as WCS emerged as a standard communication channel
that supported interactions pertaining to all areas of life. Our findings indicate that WCS afforded a new
virtual togetherness, new shared and synchronous social activities and events, and meetings that could
not have taken place otherwise. We also identify constraints that arose from the unexpected and
unconditional digitalisation of life, such as an increased exposure of people’s private living space. From
our analysis we derive implications for IS design and topics for future research. Beyond helping to
address the challenges inherent in the COVID-19 crisis, we hope that this research can contribute to
framing this “forced digitalisation” an opportunity to explore new digital practices that are worthwhile
and are here to stay.
The remainder of this article is structured as follows. The next section provides an overview of WCS
and affordance theory. Then we report on the collection and analysis of our dataset, and present and
discuss our findings. The article concludes with a discussion of the role of technology during the
COVID-19 crisis and directions for future research.
This section first provides an overview of WCS and prior work on its use. This stream of research
generally guides our data collection and provides a foundation for discussing our results. We then
introduce key concepts of affordance theory, which we employ as a theoretical lens in our study, and
report on the use of affordance theory in IS research.
WCS are general-purpose systems that facilitate virtual meetings among participants over the internet.
WCS’s predecessors include personal videoconferencing applications like the “Picturephone”, which
was rolled out in the 1960s, room-based group videoconferencing systems, and desktop
videoconferencing (Wilcox, 2000). Today’s WCS (or meeting solutions) are communication and
collaboration tools that can be accessed from desktop and mobile devices and are available on various
platforms. WCS commonly support audio and video calls, messaging, content- and screen-sharing, and
meeting recordings (Fasciani et al., 2019). They may be used for one-to-one or group calls, webinars,
and webcasts. Microsoft Teams and Zoom meeting solutions are amongst the WCS used most often.
WCS are used in various contexts that are characterised by physical distance. Given the high investment
in terms of hardware and infrastructure required set up videoconferencing solutions in the early days,
such systems were first adopted by companies to facilitate business-to-business interactions and later on
the work of distributed teams in an increasingly globalised world (Olson et al., 2012; Smith & McKeen,
2011). Soon after, videoconferencing was adopted to facilitate distance learning (e.g. Mupinga, 2005)
and the delivery of health care services (Wilcox, 2000). More recently, readily available infrastructure,
devices, and software solutions have contributed to videoconferencing’s becoming a social phenomenon
(Geenen, 2017) by, for instance, helping members of long-distance families keep in touch (Follmer et
al., 2010; King-O’Riain, 2015). Now video chatting increasingly replaces phone calls, especially
amongst Millennials (Grech, 2019).
Across these and other contexts, technologies like WCS provide access to distant resources by bridging
geographic and social distance. Because of its synchronicity and superior ability to convey verbal and
non-verbal cues in comparison to other media, videoconferencing is perceived to be the closest available
technology to a real-life interaction (Dennis et al., 2008; Dennis & Valacich, 1999). In the business
context, the use of video can facilitate knowledge-sharing and trust-building between distant partners
(Zander et al., 2013) and is the preferred medium for transmitting complex information (Huysman et al.,
2003; Sarker & Sahay, 2003). On the other hand, videoconferencing’s affordance of conveying visual
cues may cause some users to avoid it if they feel monitored or are uncomfortable being viewed
(Webster, 1998). With regards to private interactions, such as those among transnational family
members, video calls enhance the sense of togetherness by facilitating the sharing of daily routines.
Video calls are also a more natural communication medium than voice- or text-only forms of
communication for children who want to “show and tell” at the same time (Judge & Neustaedter, 2010).
Despite technology’s affordance of creating (social) presence, physical distance still tends to be
perceived as a barrier to effective communication, collaboration, and establishment of trust (Hacker et
al., 2019). In addition, while technology has made the world smaller, it has not led to the “death of
distance” (Cairncross, 1997), as people still have stronger relationships with those who are physically
proximate (e.g. McKenna & Bargh, 2000). Hence, even though technology enables communication and
collaboration in distributed settings, it can address the “problem of distance” only to a finite extent
(Hafermalz & Riemer, 2016b).
During the COVID-19 crisis, we have seen a remarkable uptake of WCS around the world. Taking the
example of Zoom, the number of daily meeting participants went up from about 10 million in December
2019 to 200 million in March 2020 (Reuters, 2020). This increased demand by a much broader base of
users that started to use WCS in unexpected ways revealed issues in existing solutions regarding
security, for example, and presented new requirements (O’Flaherty, 2020b). Vendors of WCS were
quick to react by changing their pricing schemes, lifting the 40-minute meeting limit on basic accounts
for schools (Zoom), and adding new features, such as customised video backgrounds and the ability to
raise a virtual “hand” in a meeting (Microsoft Teams). Prior work in the field of crisis informatics shows
how the use of technology changes in the aftermath of extreme events and how existing tools evolve
into something else. For instance, Twitter, which is usually used for communicating and sharing
information, emerged as a tool for collective participation and coordination in responding to a natural
disaster, that is the Thailand flooding 2011 (Leong et al., 2015) and a tool for collective sense-making
after a terrorist attack on the Berlin Christmas market (Fischer-Preßler et al., 2019). The increase in the
number of users and the release notes of vendors of WCS suggest that WCS have played a unique role
in responding to the COVID-19 pandemic. In this paper, we seek to clarify this role by drawing on
Gibson (1977) pioneered the concept of affordances in the field of ecological psychology. Gibson posits
that actors perceive objects in their environments not in terms their material properties but in terms of
affordances, that is, the possibilities for action they afford that will allow them to meet their goals. Thus,
a hammer is not a hard object with a wooden handle but an affordance for inserting a nail into a board.
Drawing on Strong et al. (2014) in the field of IS, we define affordances as “potential[s] for behaviors
associated with achieving an immediate concrete outcome and arising from the relation between an
artifact and a goal-oriented actor or actors.” In this regard, we differentiate between affordances, that is,
“potential[s] for action with respect to an actor’s goals” (Volkoff & Strong, 2017, p. 236) and their
actualisation, which refers to specific actions taken by individual actors. Based on the general meaning
of the word “affordance”, the concept of affordances is often used to refer to enablement. However, as
Leonardi (2011), Majchrzak & Markus (2013), and Volkoff and Strong (2017) argue, affordances are
both enabling and constraining. For instance, accessing one’s email using a smartphone enables an actor
to work from various locations and meets the actor’s goal of flexible work locations and hours. At the
same time, this feature may be constraining by making it more difficult for the actor to “switch off”
from work when that is her goal. If actors perceive that a technology constrains them from achieving
their goals, they may change their routines and/or the technology (Leonardi, 2011). In the process of
adopting and appropriating a technology, actors may also discover new affordances (Riemer & Johnston,
2012) or be able to actualise an affordance more effectively as their skill levels increase (Volkoff &
Affordance theory is employed in IS research to explore how technology is adopted and adapted and
how technology use is interwoven with and triggers changes in organisational structures (Volkoff &
Strong, 2017). From a socio-technical perspective, affordance theory allows researchers to examine the
material properties of technology (i.e. hardware and software) and its social and contextual aspects at
the same time. For instance, Ellison et al. (2015) investigate how affordances offered by Enterprise
Social Networks (ESN) may impact organisations’ knowledge-sharing practices. In the context of green
IS, Seidel et al. (2013) use an affordance lens to show how IS can contribute to creating (and be designed
to create) environmentally sustainable organisations.
In this study, an affordance lens is helpful in conceptualising the affordances and constraints that
individuals perceive from using WCS in a specific context, that is, during the lockdown. While the
specific distancing regulations varied from region to region, most countries imposed regulations that
restricted people’s mobility and contact with others, banning public events and gatherings and closing
public facilities like “non-essential” shops, recreational facilities, and museums. Because people often
tweeted about their use of WCS during the crisis, this data is available for analysis of the specific actions,
or actualised affordances, people took. Analysing those actions allows us to infer WCS’s affordances of
which actors became aware during the crisis. Given of our dataset and topic modelling approach, in
terms of material qualities our analysis is restricted to features that are usually part of WCS and features
that specifically came up in our automated analysis, such as virtual backgrounds. Despite this limitation,
we consider an affordance lens appropriate for exploring how people reinterpreted WCS and started to
use them in new ways during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Given the enormous uptake of WCS during the COVID-19 crisis (e.g. Reuters, 2020), this study’s goal
is to document the use of WCS that emerged at that time. Rather than testing existing theory, we adopt
an inductive (or data-driven) approach to identify new themes and relationships from digital trace data
(Berente et al., 2019; Müller, Junglas, vom Brocke, et al., 2016). Hence, prior work on WCS and
affordance theory only guide our data collection, analysis, and discussion (Müller, Junglas, vom Brocke,
et al., 2016).
Data Collection and Preparation
In light of our research goal, we sought access to data that would lead to insights into the use of WCS
by many social actors in many contexts. We chose the microblogging platform Twitter as our data source
since many institutions, organisations, and private individuals used it to disseminate COVID-19-related
information and report on their lockdown experiences (Hutchinson, 2020). Using Twitter facilitates both
breadth of data in terms of a comprehensive view of a variety of actors’ WCS use, and depth of data
through a detailed analysis of selected tweets. In addition, digital trace data from Twitter is naturally
occurring data that can be collected unobtrusively and without being prone to biases that originate from
self-reported data collected through interviews or surveys (Müller, Junglas, vom Brocke, et al., 2016).
We began collecting tweets on 23 March 2020 using Twitter’s REST API and the search terms
microsoftteams, skype, zoom, and webex. The search terms refer to WCS that are commonly used to
support synchronous communication and collaboration in both business and the private realm. The
sample of tweets used in this study comes from twelve weeks of data collection, from 23 March 2020
to 14 June 2020. The initial dataset of 11 million tweets was reduced to 3.4 million tweets after removing
non-English tweets and retweets. We also compared tweets without their trailing hashtag(s) and
removed tweets that were 95 percent duplicates of other tweets. This step filtered out about 200,000
tweets, leading to a dataset of 3.2 million tweets. We also did a manual check of eight users who posted
a high number of tweets and deemed them spam-bot users, so we removed their tweets (25,560 tweets)
from the dataset. Figure 1, which shows the distribution of the tweets in our dataset over time, indicates
that people usually tweet more during the week than they do on weekends and that the traffic related to
our search terms decreased as time progressed.
Insert Figure 1 about here:
Figure 1: Distribution of tweets over time
We used probabilistic topic modelling, a well-established text-mining approach, to identify themes
related to the use of WCS during the COVID-19 pandemic. The core idea of this approach is that text—
in this case, tweets—contains multiple topics in varying proportions. Topic modelling is used in
information systems (IS) research to analyse datasets in various contexts, such as analysing online job
advertisements to identify and compare the skills that are demanded by the job market (e.g. Föll et al.,
2018; Handali et al., 2020), deriving the benefits of customer service management from service request
tickets (Müller, Junglas, Debortoli, et al., 2016), and investigating the evolution of IS research (Jeyaraj
& Zadeh, 2020). Tutorials on using topic modelling in IS research (Debortoli et al., 2016; Müller,
Junglas, vom Brocke, et al., 2016; Schmiedel et al., 2019) guided the approach we applied.
We used the cloud-based text-mining tool MineMyText.com, which employs the Latent Dirichlet
Allocation (LDA) algorithm, to extract topics from the tweets in our dataset (Blei et al., 2003). This
algorithm models a document as being composed of a fixed number of topics with proportions from 0
percent (if the document contains no topics) to 100 percent (if the document contains only one topic)—
that is, a probability distribution of topics. In a similar fashion, a topic is modelled as a probability
distribution of words, and then extracted topics are interpreted manually. We used LDA because it is
well-researched from both the technical and the application perspectives, what includes its use in
analysing tweets (Jelodar et al., 2019).
Setting the number of topics is a key step in implementing LDA. Using Debortoli et al.’s (2016) tutorial,
we evaluated various numbers of topics, from 20 to 100 topics in steps of 10, and used the semantic
coherence metric to evaluate these topic models automatically. In particular, we applied the method Lau
and Baldwin (2016) propose, which builds on Lau et al. (2014), who take pairs of terms present in the
top n words used in addressing a topic and calculate how often these pairs co-occur in a narrow, sliding
window over a reference corpus. This calculation results in a normalised pointwise mutual information
(NPMI) score that ranges between -1 (worst) and 1 (best). Appendix 1 shows the computed NPMI score
for each topic model that results from averaging its NPMI scores for different numbers of top n words
(i.e. 5, 10, 15, and 20) to increase the reliability of the metric (Lau & Baldwin, 2016). Then we performed
a qualitative evaluation of the coherence of the topic models with 20, 30, 50 and 60 topics and selected
the topic model with 50 topics. This model differentiates the topics better than those of coarse-grained
models (i.e. 20 and 30 topics) while the added complexity of the model with 60 topics did not provide
additional valuable information.
Our final topic model for the analysis undertakes four natural-language pre-processing steps:
1. Removing Twitter users’ names, URLs, numbers, and punctuations.
2. N-gram tokenising up to bi-grams—that is, splitting tweets into single words and sequences of two
3. Removing stopwords—that is, words that are deemed uninformative. In addition to the standard
English stopwords (e.g. “the”, “is”, “and”), we added “zoom”, “skype”, “webex”, “microsoftteams”,
“call”, “meet”, “im”, “meeting”, “join”, “link”, “links”, “dont”, and “youre”. The tool names used
in the data collection are removed along with other frequent words, as these words do not add new
information to the tweets and might hamper interpretation of the topics.
4. Lemmatising—that is, reducing words to their dictionary form.
The topic modelling resulted in fifty topics that we labelled and categorised as shown in Appendix 2.
We labelled topics inductively, that is, by looking into a topic’s most likely words and most likely
associated tweets. In doing so, we realised that topics were often connected to one of the contexts of
WCS use—namely, business, private life, and education—that we also found in our literature review.
Having initially analysed and aggregated findings according to those categories, we decided to exclude
topics that were associated with the education context. The WCS-enabled sudden digitalisation of all
levels of education is a large-scale phenomenon of the COVID-19 crisis, so it is also diffuse, as it
pertains to various types of educational institutions (primary and secondary schools, universities) and
stakeholders (instructors, learners of all ages, parents). Given the scale of this category and its associated
topics, we felt that this category deserves a separate study. In addition to excluding topics related to
education, we excluded eight topics either because they included a highly mixed set of tweets that did
not allow a clear assignment of a label or because they were irrelevant to the topic (e.g. using “zoom”
as it relates to photography). Taken as a whole, this process excluded eighteen of the fifty topics. Of the
remaining 32 topics, 18 were connected with one of five affordances (A1-A5), and 14 were connected
with one of five constraints (C1-C5) that we derived inductively from the topics.
We performed topic modelling on a sample of our 3.2-million-tweet dataset to streamline the topic-
extraction process. We randomly sampled 50 percent of the tweets from the first six weeks (1,950,844
tweets published between 23 March 2020 to 3 May 2020) and used the resulting topic model to assign
topics to the remaining tweets. This approach—specifically, the implementation done in a Python
package called lda—is proposed in Wallach et al. (2009) and further justified in Buntine (2009). lda
uses the topic-word distribution (i.e. the probability that a word belongs to each topic) from the LDA
output and an approach called ‘iterated pseudo-count’ to provide accurate estimates of the likelihood
that an unseen document contains a particular topic. In addition to content-related labelling of the topics,
we considered the distribution of the topics over time by grouping and aggregating topic probabilities
on a daily level to observe the development of each topic’s prevalence over time (Müller, Junglas,
Debortoli, et al., 2016).
This section presents our findings regarding the affordances and constraints that arise from the use of
WCS during the COVID-19 crisis. Affordances and constraints are reported from the viewpoint of
consumers (e.g. those who attend virtual events rather than those who offer virtual events) where such
roles can be distinguished.
Here we introduce five affordances (A1-A5) (i.e. action potentials) that individuals perceive from the
use of WCS (Table 1). As Table 1 shows, these affordances pertain to various parts of individuals’ lives.
The sections describe the actions taken and illustrate them with quotations
from our dataset. Table 2
provides an overview of the topics (T) that are connected to the affordances, including exemplary tweets
and visualisations of the topics’ distribution over time.
Insert Table 1 about here:
Table 1: Affordances that arise from the use of WCS
Insert Table 2 about here:
All tweets quoted in this paper were edited to ensure the anonymity of the tweets’ authors.
Table 2: Overview of topics connected to affordances (A1-A5), along with an exemplary tweet and
topic distribution over time
A1. Communicating with social groups: Virtual catch-ups and coffee breaks
Our analysis reveals several actions that relate to the affordance of communication with social groups.
During the COVID-19 crisis, many people used WCS to catch up and keep in touch with family and
friends (T12). One Twitter user reported using WCS for “[…] talking to my [family] and all their pets
on [WCS] for the first time. It was new and beautiful and I am just [thankful] for technology right now”.
People also used WCS to meet and socialise online with members of specific groups (T7, T25, T8), such
as sports clubs and groups of volunteers. Video calls with the usual daily contacts were used to establish
a sense of togetherness, avoid social isolation, and continue the operations of organised groups while
being physically distant. Besides keeping up with daily contacts, some tweets suggest that people
perceived the crisis as an opportunity to connect with weak-tie contacts. One Twitter user reported on a
group of old friends as “[…] [we] are scattered around after [graduate] school. Today we had a group
[video call] over lunch and it was just great to see everyone and relax a bit in […] old friendships.” We
reason that people may have had more time to connect with such contacts, as their usual routines (e.g.
the activities that would normally fill their evenings) were suspended. People may have had more time
and/or may have considered that is was just as easy to reach geographically distant “old friends” using
WCS as geographically proximate friends when contact restrictions were in place.
In addition, we find that WCS facilitated social encounters beyond people’s usual circles of private
contacts, as WCS were used to interact socially with colleagues, such as during virtual coffee breaks or
lunch breaks: “I started a [virtual] morning coffee break with my team […]. No work talk, just a chance
to chat and check in […].” Topics related to work-related social gatherings online (T17) peaked on
Mondays and Fridays. While some companies may have established informal meetings among
employees prior to COVID-19—some tweets point to the online continuation of a regular physical
“happy hour tradition”—such interactions are often by-products of formal meetings or they occur by
chance, such as when people happen to meet at the coffee machine. Clearly, bumping into each other is
not possible when people are physically distant, so planned and dedicated virtual social encounters with
work contacts seem to have emerged as a new form of online meeting during the COVID-19 crisis.
A2. Engaging in shared social activities with family and friends: Online parties, activities, and
A number of topics point to individuals’ engaging in online socialising with family and friends by, for
example, meeting online to watch movies (T49), celebrate birthdays (T34), have virtual parties (T24),
or play games (T11, T22). As one tweeter reported, “[…] we had all the family on [WCS] last Saturday
night for [playing] bingo it was great fun […].” While playing games online is not a new thing, with
whom people played and what objects they used in online games may have been different during the
lockdown. Rather than playing alone or meeting with (possibly) unknown gamers in a virtual world,
people played with their everyday contacts as a replacement for a physical meeting. Some of those
games involved physical items used, such as physical bingo cards or dice cups, so everyday objects were
sometimes integrated into virtual interactions. While the tweets reported that meeting people in person
and doing things at places other than home were preferred, people appreciated being able to use virtual
substitutes for what they would normally have done: “[…] I am looking forward to […] going out and
socialising again but I have quite enjoyed [virtual] meetings and family quizzes. […]” As indicated by
a peak in the distribution of T45, family reunions attached to holidays like Easter and Passover Seder
were also virtualised during the COVID-19 crisis: “My family had a [virtual] Seder, too […] there was
a huge [group] […] that I would never see as they are on the opposite coast and [live] pretty [far away].
[…] it was a much better and more memorable Seder.” Tying in with our findings regarding the virtual
social meetings (A1), this tweet suggests that having to virtualise social interactions enabled encounters
that may not have taken place otherwise. Paradoxically, being forced into technology-mediated
interactions because of social distancing resulted in some people’s being in touch with more people than
they would have been otherwise.
A3. Attending events: Virtual concerts, church services, and board meetings in the living room
Our analysis shows that people attended online what are usually physically oriented events, including
events related to personal interests, such as concerts (T29), and events that pertain to public life. For
instance, we found evidence of church-related events and activities taking place online (T43): “Join us
live each Sunday […] for our live morning prayer broadcast at 10:30am with virtual coffee hour […]
after the service.” Moreover, people could attend online events related to community and public services
using WCS (T26): “[WCS use] brings its own challenges but we are trying to utilize technology to keep
cases moving. Please review these […] rules before scheduling a [virtual] hearing […].”
A4. Pursuing hobbies: Online yoga classes and book clubs
We also found that WCS enabled people to perform activities related to personal interests, such as
discussing books in a book club (T27) and attending exercise classes (T30): “[Three] more weeks of
lockdown = [three] more weeks of live [virtual] fitness sessions with trainer […] - Monday 9.30am,
Wednesday 6.30pm, Friday 9.30am, Sunday 9.30am […].” While such activities as online exercise
classes occurred prior to the crisis, our data indicates that many of these classes also took place live via
WCS. As such, they facilitated shared and simultaneous, that is, interactive, activities, approximating
the situation in an in-person physical fitness class. Rather than referring to those classes as “online
exercise classes”, we might consider them WCS-mediated physical classes, as WCS merely served as a
channel. Our analysis does not reveal who took part in such classes or why they did so. People may have
converted hobbies that were once physically oriented into virtual hobbies or engaged in alternative
activities simply because they were offered online. The disruption of people’s usual day-to-day lives
may have caused them to look for new activities that would work under the circumstances. Meeting
online to chat with, for example, team members of a sports club (T7) can also be considered a virtual
substitute for a physical hobby that is difficult to digitalise.
A5. Consuming non-recreational services: Online counselling sessions and webinars
Finally, our analysis shows that individuals used WCS to attend webinars (T37) and access certain
services offered online (T44). As one counsellor tweeted, “[…] some clients have asked me if I can do
[virtual] sessions […]. For those of you who are unable to visit me in person, an online […] session
[…] is now available […].” Being able to attend such virtual appointments to access wellbeing support
services or receive health advice or career advice may have been a way to deal with the crisis as well as
a way to continue attending routine consultations.
In our analysis, we identified five constraints (C1-C5) that prevented or hindered people from
accomplishing their goals by using WCS (Table 3). Such constraints arise from issues related to
technology, the overall lockdown context, and the combination of both during the lockdown. In general,
we find that the heavy reliance on technology to work and live while being largely confined at home
frequently blurred the boundaries between work and private life. In fact, while the affordance was
implicit in the data, we saw few tweets about how WCS were used to continue work, so we did not
formulate an affordance regarding this type of interaction. However, many tweets did relate to issues
and frustrations that people experienced while working from home, so most of the constraints described
in the following pertain to this context. Where applicable, we also report on strategies or newly
discovered affordances that helped people mitigate these constraints. Table 4 provides an overview of
the topics connected to the constraints, including exemplary tweets and visualisations of the topics’
distribution over time.
Insert Table 3 about here:
Table 3: Constraints that arise from the use of WCS
Insert Table 4 about here:
Table 4: Overview of topics connected to constraints (C1-C5), along with an exemplary tweet and
topic distribution over time
C1. Lacking features and competencies: How to set up and configure a WCS
Our analysis reveals that WCS lacked the features required to meet users’ needs and that people lacked
the skills to set up and configure WCS. Questions and advice for getting started with web-conferencing
and regarding features like configuring security settings (T45) and recording sessions (41) show how
users mitigated this constraint by seeking support. Over time, the topic related to getting started with
WCS (T13) decreased slightly, while discussions about the benefits and drawbacks of WCS (T9)
increased slightly. That people started discussing these benefits and drawbacks indicates that they had
achieved a certain level of proficiency using the technology as a result of using it frequently in their
daily lives, which enabled them to make informed evaluations.
C2. Having fear of being on camera: Masking how one looks
Our analysis suggests that individuals found it difficult to comply with the norms and habits associated
with work, such as wearing work clothes, in the absence of the physical workplace outside the home
(T48): “Working from home week one: ‘I [am going to get dressed up] and maintain a routine.’ Working
from home week […]: ‘I will wash my hair [only] if I am for sure going to be on [a video call]. […]’”
Not having to go work and completely relying on technology allowed people to let themselves go, so
since using the camera would reveal their unprofessional look, they felt exposed and uncomfortable and
reluctant to use the camera (T36). We observe that people dealt with this constraint by configuring the
camera so they looked good: “Did that thing […] where [you] zoom into [your] face instead of hold the
camera close […].” Hence, as people got more proficient in using the technology, they became able to
realise more effectively the affordance of communicating professionally with work contacts.
C3. Having to be always “on”: “Zoom fatigue”
While WCS enabled people to work and have a social life during the COVID-19 crisis, our analysis also
reveals constraints that arose from this unconditionally digital life. Some tweets indicated increased
demands on their time and a prevalence of unnecessary meetings, which were also perceived as a
monitoring instrument: “[…] if you are requiring [people] to be on more [video] calls than meetings
you [would] have in person: is this because [the pandemic] increased the need for calls? Or, -do you
[…] believe people can be productive [only in the] office. […]” Virtual social encounters (A1) were
referred to as both “life-savers” and as contributors to fatigue with using WCS and drains on people’s
energy: “One of the things I am finding challenging [about] working from home [is] spending [a lot of
time] on [virtual] calls etc. - so [after] work you do not really want to call friends because you […]
need a break from it.” The fact that most aspects of life happened via one channel appears key to such
issues. In addition, managers and employees were relatively unprepared for this situation. Scheduling
(too) many work-related and informal meetings may be an (overdone) attempt both to keep things under
control and to prevent people from being isolated. While not every employee was able to work well
from home, and even less so when facilities like childcare were not available, the data also indicates
how people tried to establish strategies to adjust to the home-office situation and cope with information
overload and “Zoom fatigue” (T2): “[…] I have started doing [some things] to maintain my mental
health while I [work from home] […]: - recognize when my brain is at capacity and take a break - turn
off [push] notifications when I need a break - limit the number of [video] calls […].”
C4. Exposing one’s private living space: Unexpected co-workers entering the stage
Interruptions by new “co-workers” (T35), such as family members and pets, sometimes led to
unintended and awkward situations during online calls with work contacts. While the corresponding
tweets were often written in a joking tone, they point to blurred boundaries between people’s work and
private lives because all aspects of life took place at home: “Day 2 of [my partner] being home helping
with [the children while] I work. He walked past my laptop […] [while] I was on a [video] call [with]
my boss. […].” Facing such constraints, people discovered that the virtual background feature could
mask their actual background to give a more professional impression during work calls, as well as giving
them a way to have fun, shape their “online identity” and make them feel like they were somewhere
other than home: “[…] I have selected some of my favorite photos from [vacation spots], as well as
recognizable landmarks from our recent travels [for my own gallery]. […].” The weekday peaks for
tweets about virtual backgrounds (T14) could indicate that this feature was used primarily in the business
C5. Lacking security: New vulnerability
Our data includes discussions about security and privacy issues (T15, T38), particularly at the beginning
of April and June, as they related to Zoom’s security issues. We also found discussions on the
“zoombombing” phenomenon (T39), with people asking for and offering meeting codes and asking
others to stop this form of online trolling. As people digitalised their work and everyday lives to protect
themselves and others from getting sick, they became more worried about the vulnerable parts of a life
lived digitally. Relating to C3, we also recognise privacy risks pertaining to people’s private space at
home, as colleagues, albeit unintentionally, could get a peek into others’ private lives.
Discussion and Directions for Future Research
Recent history shows how disruptive macro-level events can lead people to reassess existing social
norms and order. The global financial crisis in 2008 invited people to think about the role and
governance of money, which then gave rise to Bitcoin and other kinds of digital money (Kavanagh et
al., 2019). The case of Bitcoin illustrates how a crisis can trigger the emergence of a new technology—
in this case, blockchain technology, which is now employed far beyond the use case of cryptocurrencies.
In this paper, we have shown how WCS became a mainstream communication channel during the
COVID-19 crisis. However, WCS are not new and WCS have not changed a lot since the beginning of
the COVID-19 crisis. Why, then, should we bother conducting research about the adoption of WCS
during the crisis? Here we discuss what was unique about WCS during the COVID-19 crisis and suggest
topics for future research. Table 5 compares previous work on WCS use related to the identified
affordances and constraints with the findings of this study. Our research agenda is shown in Table 6.
We contend that the rationale for and the speed and extent of WCS adoption during the COVID-
19 crisis was unique. In this regard, we may ask, given that the technology and people were (mostly)
ready to use WCS prior to COVID-19, why had such systems not yet become more the norm? For
instance, why did people continue to travel for business overseas rather than set up a video call that
would save considerable time and money? The answer is that no one had to. Even though the capabilities
and benefits of WCS were known before the crisis, the absence of necessity and prevailing social norms,
such as the preference for face-to-face interactions (Larsen, 2015), prevented people from breaking their
habit of meeting in person. The contact restrictions imposed to contain the spread of COVID-19 created
the necessity that outweighed prevailing social norms. The numbers of downloads of WCS applications
in March (Perez, 2020) indicate a rapid adoption of WCS by an extraordinarily high number of people
in many locations around the world. Downloading an application and creating an account was all it took
for them to shift activities and interactions to the virtual world. From the many tweets concerning how
to configure WCS, we can conclude that a considerable number of people had little experience using
WCS and/or were not particularly tech-savvy. Since “laypeople” had to integrate this technology into
their day-to-day lives and businesses, theory on the diffusion of innovations in social networks
(Tscherning, 2012) suggests that the discourse on Twitter about the use of WCS indicated a collective
process of learning and becoming aware of the affordances and constraints of this technology.
Simultaneously, the discourse on Twitter and other social media platforms is likely to have contributed
to the diffusion of affordances, which some actors recognised right away and then spurred others to
consider, concerning what WCS could offer them in their specific contexts, such as online cultural
events and classes as a substitute for real-life meetings. We also see how network effects came into play:
As more people in more contexts (e.g. families for private interactions, consumers and providers of
leisure time activities) started using WCS, others became more inclined also to adopt WCS, which
increased their overall acceptance and valuation.
As COVID-19 is a prolonged crisis, we may wonder what will stay and what will go and how the crisis,
despite its far-reaching negative impact, may also serve as a “window of opportunity” (Tyre &
Orlikowski, 1994) now that people have been forced to change their habits. While the advantages of
face-to-face interactions over virtual meetings should not be neglected, we encourage a discourse about
which of the newly established virtual practices should stay. For instance, never before has it been
so easy to “attend” a festival or conference or to visit a famous museum that is geographically out of
reach. We could argue, then, that this crisis has allowed more people to participate in such events,
increasing inclusion. Therefore, we recommend that providers of services and events think about
business models and hybrid formats that could help them survive this crisis and future crises. We also
invite companies and institutions to reconsider their travel policies. Given that academic mobility is
recognised as an important factor in education institutions’ carbon footprint (e.g. Arsenault et al., 2019),
the IS community could take a leading role in establishing tools and concepts for hybrid or fully virtual
conferences. That said, the adoption of technology to support new use cases may change the competitive
landscapes of industries that provide services that are typically consumed in the areas around where
people live such that the digital may challenge the non-digital. For instance, if cultural events continue
to be offered online, some people may choose the online event over the physical event they would
otherwise have attended, and students may prefer to attend online classes offered by renowned
universities, rather than going to a local university. Competition between the virtual and the non-virtual
has the potential to improve both, as the WCS experience improves and expands and in-person service
providers create unique customer experiences at their locations by, for example, demonstrating the value
of in-person classes through collaborative and in-class projects, discussions, and problem-solving.
Beyond why and how the adoption of WCS occurred, what is unique about the use of WCS during the
COVID-19 crisis? Our analysis shows how WCS emerged as a standard communication channel
pertaining to multiple areas of life as people attempted to translate everyday activities and interactions
to the virtual world. How WCS facilitated shared and synchronous social activities that approximate
real-life interactions was unique. However, despite what has recently been achieved in using WCS,
improvements are needed for such systems to enable more natural encounters, such as real-life
encounters that occur without prior invitation. The (physical) coffee machine offers one a good chance
of running into (new) people. Such informal encounters contribute to employees’ general awareness
about what is going on, help to establish common ground, and may be the starting point for an innovative
idea (Allen et al., 2007). Designers of IS should think about features that facilitate spontaneous
encounters, such as bots that randomly set up meetings with known or unknown people. In addition, we
recognise a need for features that facilitate more natural group experiences in online meetings. Consider
a group of people meeting for drinks after work: Over the course of the evening, they are likely to have
a variety of conversational set-ups, such as one person saying something to whole group, people talking
in subgroups, and people leaving one and joining another subgroup after overhearing part of an
interesting conversation. Such experiences are not supported in current WCS, where people cannot talk
with one group and listen to other conversations at the same time. While break-out rooms support the
idea of splitting into sub-groups, entering a break-out room prevents one from being aware of what is
happening in other groups. Novel technologies, such as virtual reality, might be used to create more
realistic group encounters and to address issues like scalability and real-time capabilities.
After WCS became the main communication channel for many people at the same time, WCS emerged
as a social technology that led to a new virtual togetherness. Affordances that long-distance families
have long recognised (Geenen, 2017) were finally recognised by people who were suddenly restricted
from meeting with each other. While personal interactions in this new context were expected, how this
new virtual togetherness pertained to professional settings and the greater community in the form of
virtual coffees, happy hours and the like seems unique. Prior to the crisis, the lack of access to such
interactions was one reason that remote workers felt socially isolated and often “left out” (Hafermalz &
Riemer, 2016a), but we learned during the crisis how remote work and personal interaction can go hand-
in-hand. In the absence of real-world hallways and coffee machines, companies established informal
social meetings to keep up the “water cooler” interaction; these proactive measures prevented social
isolation and indicated increased awareness and prioritisation of the social side of work. As remote work
is likely to become more prevalent after the crisis than it was before the crisis (e.g. Wronski, 2020),
research and practice alike should develop strategies for how WCS and other tools, such as ESN, can be
used to prevent isolation and feelings of “us versus them” in (partly) distributed teams (Sarker & Sahay,
2003). In addition, future research should investigate in more detail what constituted “virtual
togetherness” during the COVID-19 crisis and how it differed from the virtual togetherness and social
presence that prior work investigates (Barden et al., 2012; Lombard & Ditton, 1997). Given that some
streamed events, for example, could be attended by an international audience, this “virtual togetherness”
could even occur at a global level.
In addition, WCS facilitated activities and meetings that would not have taken place otherwise. Not
only have people met online and performed activities with their day-to-day contacts, such as family and
work contacts, but given that everyone and everything were out of reach, they also organised meetings
with old friends who were suddenly as accessible as their neighbours through WCS. People who face
constraints in meeting people or taking part in activities because of such issues as family obligations or
health had better access to a social life during the crisis than they did when everyone else was out and
about all day. Benefits connected with remote work (Kurkland & Bailey, 1999) or distance education
(Mupinga, 2005), such as increased flexibility, were now experienced in private and social activities.
On the other hand, people with once good access to real-life activities and interactions may have skipped
virtual substitutes or perceived them only as “better than nothing,” rather than a “good option”. Since
the experiences of non-adopters are not likely to be included in our dataset, which is naturally biased
towards adopters of WCS, future research could examine more closely the factors that drove or impeded
people’s adoption of WCS during the crisis. We reiterate that forced and unconditional digitalisation
revealed the potential of WCS to allow more people to benefit from virtual practices. As access to
infrastructure and technology and the skills to use them are becoming ever more important, we should
work to mitigate a digital divide by developing strategies and implementing measures that ensure the
inclusion of less “digitally fit” groups in their use.
What happened as many aspects of life were suddenly mediated by one channel? Our view is that the
use of WCS during the COVID-19 crisis was connected to a unique blending of contexts. The issue
of blurred boundaries between work and private life is well established in previous research on remote
work (e.g. Kelliher & Anderson, 2010), but what seems new is that this blurring is not experienced only
by remote workers because of the lack of physical separation between work and private living space,
but that other persons at home and distant actors (e.g. during a videoconference) also play an active role
in this process of blending. Such blending pertains not only to interactions at work and in private life
but also to interactions with acquaintances while pursuing hobbies online. Given the blending of
contexts, we recognise a need for features that give people a chance to make a good impression. For
many people, virtual backgrounds became part of their (virtual) identities; some organisations even
released virtual backgrounds to promote brand recognition, so a design element created utility in the
new context of digital cooperation. It also shaped behaviour on the individual and organisational levels,
as well as on the market level since increasing numbers of tools now provide virtual background
features. Other features that facilitate identity and impression management could help increase personal
comfort during videoconferences.
Our also analysis suggests that entering an online meeting is not sufficient to make people feel like
they are somewhere else. Firm resolutions to create an “office-like” situation at home by, for example,
wearing professional clothing and establishing routines were often discarded quickly. While these issues
are not new, they are aggravated when everyone works from home. Relating to prior work on technology
overload (e.g. Saunders et al., 2017), for some, the heavy reliance on web-conferencing as the main
medium for conducting one’s life led to physical and mental exhaustion. There is a need for concepts
and features that ensure that place and time can be experienced. While corporate virtual backgrounds
help to address this issue, additional features that create context (e.g. features that make an employee
feel he or she is at work), mimic external factors, monitor progress, and help people plan their days and
stay focused could mitigate such issues. Organisations should also train managers in leading distributed
workforces and recognising issues early.
Finally, we showed how heavy reliance on WCS during the COVID-19 crisis revealed privacy and
security issues related to existing applications, spurred new forms of cyber-attacks, and created new
risks, especially those that pertain to people’s private living space. The more people and organisations
communicate and collaborate online, the more vulnerable they become in the virtual world. To
prevent a wave of cyber-security issues, IS designers should develop additional privacy- and security-
enhancing features. Companies and institutions should also review their IT security and develop
employee training on how to avoid these issues.
Table 5 compares this study’s findings with prior work and presents the unique aspects of WCS use
during the COVID-19 crisis. Table 6 summarises our suggestions for future research.
Insert Table 5 about here:
Table 5: Comparison of findings with prior work and implications of the COVID-19 crisis on WCS
Insert Table 6 about here:
Table 6: Research agenda
Conclusion, Limitations, and Outlook
In this paper, we explored the use of WCS during the COVID-19 crisis using an analysis of Twitter data.
Our analysis suggested that WCS emerged as channel that facilitates access to everyday activities and
contacts that were temporarily “locked away” because of COVID-19 mitigation efforts. We showed
how individuals moved once physically oriented leisure activities and social interactions to an online
environment. We found that technology use during the COVID-19 crisis went beyond solving a problem
of distance, as the crisis situation and contact restrictions stimulated people’s creativity and willingness
to recognise and actualise new affordances (as well as previously known affordances) in new settings,
revealing that, as social distance became the norm, many people became more, not less, social. New use
cases by public services and institutions indicated technology’s central role in helping societies respond
to this crisis. This study also developed insights into the constraints that arose from the unexpected and
unconditional digitalisation of life. We discussed the benefits of some of the newly established digital
practices and highlighted the importance of features that facilitate impression and identity management,
context creation, more natural encounters, and privacy protection.
Our study has several limitations that lead to other suggestions for future research. Collecting and
analysing social media data, particularly Twitter data, comes with its own challenges. Firstly, Twitter’s
API involves particular algorithms that “decide” which tweets are collected first (Driscoll & Walker,
2014; Morstatter et al., 2013). Unlike the popular Stream API, which facilitates the real-time collection
of tweets, using the REST API allowed us to collect tweets published several days before the time of
the search. While we expected this approach to yield a larger coverage, the possibility of missing tweets
remains. Secondly, as with other social media data, the platform’s demographics (Bruns & Stieglitz,
2014), its users’ varying roles and influence (Mirbabaie & Zapatka, 2017), and the existence of social
bots (Stieglitz et al., 2017) may introduce biases in terms of content. As a result, we were able to identify
affordances and constraints based only on the communications of the people or institutions that tweeted
about them. Thirdly, spam in the social media data could have inflated the amount of data with irrelevant
context (Stieglitz et al., 2018). We introduced additional data-filtering and pre-processing steps to
mitigate the data quality issues. Given the size of our dataset and the wide adoption of Twitter, we
believe we achieved a level of coverage that would be required to obtain an initial overview of people’s
adoption of WCS during the COVID-19 crisis. In addition, given the nature of our dataset and the scope
of this paper, we could derive only limited insights into how actors engaged with the material qualities—
that is, features—of WCS in becoming aware of and actualising affordances. Based on these limitations
and our initial insights, we plan to continue this project by conducting interviews and fielding surveys
to refine and validate our findings and to derive additional design implications that could address the
constraints to WCS use.
The welcoming address of an online concert included the observation that “the global community has
had to find a new way of sharing, […] and they have found it. People are not just enjoying music
together; they are also making music together. And all via the Internet, via livestreaming.”
The use of
technology in this time of crisis had positive outcomes that would not have been achieved otherwise.
We encourage IS scholarship and practice to help societies, businesses, and institutions to deepen and
extend the discourse on how technology facilitated an effective response to this crisis and how what we
learned from it can help address societal problems more generally. In particular, IS research could show
how to leverage the new and potential advantages offered by technology during and beyond the COVID-
19 crisis, help to point out missing or obsolete features, and explore the effects of technology use in
other settings. We hope our initial insights will inspire this conversation and inform future investigations
in this field.
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Insert Appendix 1 about here:
Appendix 1: NPMI scores for different topic models
Insert Appendix 2 about here:
Appendix 2: Topic modelling results
Figure 1: Distribution of tweets over time
Table 7: Affordances that arise from the use of WCS
A1. Communicating with social
Meeting online with members of social groups (e.g. family,
friends, colleagues) to catch up and chat, such as virtually over
A2. Engaging in shared social
activities with family and friends
Engaging with family and friends in joint virtual activities, such
as playing games or gathering for special occasions like
celebrating a birthday.
A3. Attending events
Attending virtual events that include gatherings of people, such
as a concert, that are offered or organised by an external entity.
A4. Pursuing hobbies
Performing group activities related to personal interests online,
such as online yoga classes. Activities are hosted by an external
A5. Consuming non-recreational
Accessing non-recreational services offered online, such as
getting career advice, and keeping appointments online.
Table 8: Overview of topics connected to affordances (A1-A5), along with an exemplary tweet and topic distribution over time.
(Gridlines on the graph refer to Sundays.)
Topic distribution over time
A1. Communicating with social groups
Any […] coaches, or […] college players would like to do
a [video] call with inspiring [..] players? [I would] love
for you to share what it takes to be an […] athlete at the
next level to a group of boys […].
Want to join a running community? Register for our free
[…] program at under "registration." The program
includes weekly [virtual] meetings, run completion
verifications, and prizes […].
Important daily reminders to prevent the spread of
[COVID-19]! [It is] important to not be in direct contact
with others at this time, including family or friends.
Instead use social media, [make a video call] or simply
pick up the phone to connect.
Happy Friday everyone! [It was] great to have today’s
weekly staff [virtual] meeting, to catch up, to recap on the
week and to plan ahead for next week. Enjoy your [video
calls at the] weekend everyone and let’s try to have some
fun along the way!
Great [virtual] meeting tonight with 60+ […] coaches!
Great to catch up with everyone and share ideas. [I
cannot] wait to get back to work with my guys! Biggest
take away from tonight: [Stay at home now] so we can
play ball this fall! […].
A2. Engaging in shared social activities with family and friends
The […] Society have organised a lockdown quiz for next
Friday night! Get your […] team ready, let us put you in a
team or come on your bill […], and join us […].
More people home means more people gaming together.
Whether it is video games, […] trivia, or online tabletop
role playing games, people who [cannot] be together are
My host [mother] is organizing a "fancy Friday" tonight,
so we are all going to dress nice, [have a ]drink [and]
some fancy food while on [a video call] with family [and]
Thank you for taking the time to sign this card for me. My
[family member] organised it for my […] birthday in
isolation. Bring on the [virtual] party with friends […]
It is so hard to not be with family for Seder. We went new-
fangled this year! Did a Seder dinner drive by for my
[family member] and then raced home and we had a
Being on the [virtual] party with friends really [made] me
[miss] all of my friends and […] realize [that] I love to
socialize.[…] I need to be around people and just enjoy
A3. Attending events
Who says community boards are outdated? Not! [Our
community board] held its first full board meeting via
[WCS] last night! We refuse to let [COVID-19] stop the
important work that [is] needed now and for the future of
Fans from around the world were invited to join [the]
concert via [WCS]. Fans were able to join the concert's
[online] meeting and watch themselves be broadcasted
along with the concert.
We hope to see you on [WCS] at noon today as we begin
Good Friday. This brief, 15-minute gathering is a time to
check-in with our church family, participate in a daily
devotional, scripture readings, and prayer.
A4. Pursuing hobbies
Bookworms! Gather around the [video] call to hear what
we thought of this month's book […]. Covering (or at least
introducing) a heap of heavy topics, this book should be
subtitled: "Discussion starter for book clubs". […]
Virtual classes are going live next week! Our instructors
are offering quick [and] challenging workouts to keep you
in fighting shape. You can book into class online and we
[will] email you the [meeting] link before class.
A5. Consuming non-recreational services
[…] Services is hosting a workshop on Wednesday, April
8th to share staff experiences of applying for the Faculty
Early Career Development […] program. To register for
this [virtual] workshop, visit: […]
[…] We are now providing our wellbeing support services
over phone [or video call] – our experienced team can
provide mentoring and coaching support, with rapid
access to counselling […] through our professional
Table 9: Constraints that arise from the use of WCS
C1. Lacking features and
A lack of features in existing WCS and a lack of technical skills,
such as the ability to configure audio settings, prevent people
from using WCS effectively.
C2. Having fear of being on
People are worried about work contacts’ perceiving them as
unprofessional when they are on camera because of their often
casual look at home in terms of clothes and grooming. This
worry causes feelings of stress and discomfort.
C3. Having to be always “on”
That many aspects of life are WCS-mediated causes overload
and exhaustion in some people.
C4. Exposing one’s private living
Using WCS from their homes causes some people to feel
exposed, as others get glimpses into their private living space
(e.g. surroundings, family members).
C5. Lacking security
Extensive reliance on WCS gives rise to new forms of cyber-
attacks (e.g. “zoombombing”) and comes with new security and
Table 10: Overview of topics connected to constraints (C1-C5), along with an exemplary tweet and topic distribution over time.
(Gridlines on the graph refer to Sundays.)
Topic distribution over time
C1. Lacking features and competencies
tools for work
As new services come to the fore with interesting
features, the competition […] is making existing services
better. [WCS1] features are leading to services like
[WCS2] to get better. […]
Pros and cons of
What I [have] seen about these video calls […] is that
people want interaction. Do [not] bore people with what
you [are] doing, engage them, answer their questions,
give them time to talk if possible. Unless you [are]
Setting up of
Working from home [WCS] pro tip: Open a Word
[document], set book or something heavy on the space
bar. Computer views it as your typing and you [will not]
go inactive. Also, if you have a [WCS] pro account, just
create a meeting for yourself. System [will not] go into
Setting up tools
In [this live streaming platform] you can stream any
audio (videos, music, etc.) at high quality. In [WCS] I
[am] not sure how to do that and I [do not] think the
quality of sharing audio is as good. I used [WCS] to
share hip hop beats and it sounded awful. Fine for
Setting up tools
We know that [the hijacking of video conferences] is
now a thing. If using [video calls] for public purposes
(where the link is shared widely), make sure to change
the default setting so that only the host can share their
screen or files and use options to mute/unmute
C2. Having fear of being on camera
Just because [making a video call] is an option does
[not] mean every call has to be a video call. All these
people who […] never [looked] at my face suddenly […]
want to look at my face. It [is] a fine face, but I want to
wake up looking like […] and not have to worry about it.
work at home
Is anybody else getting progressively less professional
with staff [virtual] meetings the longer we [are] in
isolation? The first day I [dressed up] and did my hair
and makeup. Today I [am wearing] a hoodie and did
[not] even wash my face.
C3. Having to be always “on”
First week working at home things I learned. 1. Breaks,
go for a walk […]. 2. [Virtual] meetings - amazing, but
mentally exhausting after a long day of them. 3. Be
careful you can work 10-12 hours and not realize it, and
still feel like you have [not] done enough.
about work at
Set up my [WCS] account yesterday as [I am] starting a
new job […]. What a time to start a new job!! It [is]
going to be fine, but working from home on [the first
day] is going to be a challenge.
C4. Exposing one’s private living space
It [is] actually really easy to change your [WCS]
background! I just searched [a] background on Google
images and saved it to my computer. Just “change
virtual background” in [WCS] options and upload
whatever [image file] you have. […]
Pets and family
[…] that was my first [online] meeting where my [pet]
decided to stand in front of the camera and then attempt
to knock over my [tablet], and when he was [not] doing
these things, run really fast […] right behind me the
entire meeting. Definitely not the last.
C5. Lacking security
Last week, after an article on the news site […] reported
that software inside the [WCS mobile application] was
sending user data to [social networking platform], the
company said it was removing the tracking software.
Good article about [WCS]. Makes people aware of how
they can better use [WCS] in a private way. […]. I think
the [user interface] should be more direct about
security. [For instance], when creating a meeting, create
prompts that force a decision about security settings [...]
Here [is] the link: this call is password protected in an
effort to minimize trolling […]. Reply to this tweet with a
request for the password; I [will] gladly direct message
it to you!
Table 11: Comparison of findings with prior work and implications of the COVID-19 crisis on WCS
Findings of prior work on WCS before the
Findings of this study on WCS during the
Implications of the COVID-19
crisis on WCS
• Use of WCS for formal, work-related
meetings as a dominant use case (Geenen,
• Little evidence of pure WCS-mediated
social meetings among workmates during
work (e.g. Cohen, 1999), as social
meetings tend to occur in person, such as
at the coffee machine or during a lunch
break (e.g. Zander et al., 2013).
• WCS became the main channel for formal,
• WCS also emerged as a channel for purely
social interactions with work contacts (e.g.
online coffee breaks).
Ø The COVID-19 crisis forced
people to rethink existing
practices and to substitute
once physically oriented
meetings with virtual
meetings, leading to a rapid
and unprecedented uptake
Ø WCS emerged as a standard
communication channel used
in various areas of life.
Ø WCS were adopted by new
users for new use cases and to
connect with different
(groups of) individuals than
Ø WCS were used to co-create
and engage in shared and
synchronous virtual group
activities that approximate
Ø WCS were used as a social
technology, facilitating a new
Ø WCS facilitated activities and
meetings that would not
have taken place otherwise
• Use of WCS for communication with
private contacts is mainly by long-
distance families (esp. families with
children) (Judge & Neustaedter, 2010),
long-distance couples (Neustaedter &
Greenberg, 2012), and teenagers as a
substitute for phone calls (Buhler et al.,
• WCS became an important channel for
interactions within families and with friends,
even those who live nearby.
• WCS were used to (re)connect with distant
family members and old friends, who
became just as easy to reach using WCS as
local family and friends when contact
restrictions were in place.
• Beyond work contacts and close private
contacts, WCS were used to connect with
more casual contacts (e.g. members of a
sports club, acquaintances) and with members
of one’s (local) community. That is, the circle
of people contacted via WCS was extended,
and private group calls become larger.
A2. Engaging in
• Some evidence for the use of WCS to
engage in shared activities in long-
distance families (e.g. playing games,
birthday parties) (Brubaker et al., 2012;
Follmer et al., 2010; Raffle et al., 2011;
• WCS were adopted for various social
activities with families and friends (e.g. games
nights, happy hours, online parties).
• Instructions on websites for organising online
games nights (Chon, 2020), virtual happy
Wallbaum et al., 2018) and long-distance
couples (e.g. watching TV, sharing a
meal) (Neustaedter & Greenberg, 2012).
• Some evidence for use of video chat by
teenagers to hang out with
neighbourhood friends (Buhler et al.,
hours (Walansky, 2020), new features for
shared online activities like watch parties
(Ashworth, 2020) indicate new forms of
shared online activities.
and allowed more people to
participate at once.
• Use of WCS to participate remotely in
major life events, such as weddings and
graduation, when physical attendance is
not possible (Massimi & Neustaedter,
• Rather than having a few participants take part
in a physical event remotely, all meeting
participants co-created and took part in a
common synchronous online activity.
• Some cultural events broadcast live on
TV, radio or via live stream.
• Some virtual concerts using virtual reality
technology (Charron, 2017).
• Large numbers of cultural events via WCS
and live streams on other platforms (e.g.
Facebook, YouTube) as performers and event
organisers recognised the potential of virtual
events to continue their work online and earn
income during the lockdown period (e. g. Cox,
• Being streamed online, events could be
“attended” by a large number of people at
• Few community events, such as church
services (Earls, 2020), broadcast via live
• Online gatherings of local communities,
such as church services (LifeWayResearch,
2020), became widespread and helped keep up
• Online book clubs based mainly on
written communication in forums for
specific target groups, such as teachers
(Porath, 2018) and children (Scharber,
• Various leisure-time activities, such as online
book clubs and online exercise classes, were
offered via WCS and broadly adopted.
• Activities were organised as scheduled and
synchronous online meetings.
• Online exercise classes for people facing
restrictions to participation in physical
classes, such as older people and people
with special conditions (Ellis et al., 2013;
Uebelacker et al., 2018); partly using
gaming consoles (Cyarto et al., 2016).
• In pursuing hobbies online, individuals
connected with casual contacts via WCS.
• Webinars and online counselling, such
as online therapy, were available
(Backhaus et al., 2012).
• Increased offerings of workshops and
counselling online that had usually taken
place in person helped people to carry on (e.g.
with professional development) and manage
the crisis situation.
Findings of prior work on WCS before the
Findings of this study on WCS during the
Implications of the COVID-19
crisis on WCS
• Technological issues of WCS suggested
as a barrier to adoption both in work (e.g.
Boell et al., 2013) and private contexts
(Brubaker et al., 2012).
• Discussions on Twitter of basic features point
to the use of WCS by inexperienced users.
• Discussions on Twitter of specific features
(e.g. streaming) indicate the use of WCS in
new use cases.
• Discussions on Twitter of features and use
cases indicate collective learning and
problem-solving processes as individuals had
no other option than to adapt quickly to using
• Launch of new features like custom
backgrounds and allowing the display of more
participants on a call (e.g. O’Flaherty, 2020a),
helped WCS vendors satisfy new demands.
• Adoption of WCS by new user
groups and for new purposes
triggered the need for new
features and competencies.
• Unconditional WCS use
accelerated the process of
adopting and recognising the
potential of WCS, as well as
adapting to the use of WCS.
• Use of WCS from home for
various purposes led to a
unique blending of contexts.
• Heavy reliance on WCS led to
overload and shifted
vulnerability to the online
C2. Having fear
of being on
• Discomfort with being viewed during
videoconferences in work contexts
• Especially at the beginning of the lockdown,
individuals were camera-shy and worried
about their own appearance, particularly
when interacting with work contacts.
• Little concern about one’s own
appearance during private interactions
(Judge & Neustaedter, 2010).
• Over time, people seemed to have become
more routine and proficient in using the
C3. Having to be
• Technology overload established in terms
of, for example, mobile phones (Saunders
et al., 2017) and social networking sites
(Lee et al., 2016).
• “Zoom fatigue” is a new form of “screen
fatigue” resulting from all-encompassing
reliance on WCS (e.g. Fosslien & Duffy,
• Over time, people developed strategies to deal
with the home office situation and virtual
• Individuals were concerned about the
appearance of their homes during video
calls and tried to control what people
could see by, for example, showing only a
little background (Buhler et al., 2013;
Judge & Neustaedter, 2010).
• Individuals with no dedicated space for work
may have had less control over what and
whom others could see.
• Virtual backgrounds emerged as a feature to
mask the appearance of one’s location.
• WCS were generally not a relevant target
• WCS became a target for cyber-attacks
because of increased usage.
• Security issues indicate a lack of readiness on
part of vendors, corporations, and end-users.
• “Zoom bombing” emerged as a new form of
Table 12: Research agenda
Areas of future research
Sustainability of the “new virtual”
• Design of business models for virtual events / activities
• Design of concepts for hybrid events / activities
• Development of decision criteria and recommendations
when virtual meetings should be preferred over physical
meetings (e.g. avoiding business travel)
Sustainability of location-oriented
• Design of concepts that deliver unique customer
experiences at a location
WCS as a social technology
• Identification of dimensions of virtual togetherness
• Design of strategies to reinforce togetherness in
distributed work teams
WCS as a technology approximating
• Design of features that facilitate spontaneous meetings
• Design of features that enhance group experiences, such
as allowing multiple one-on-one conversations
Access to WCS-mediated activities
• Investigation of factors that drove and impeded WCS
adoption during the COVID-19 crisis
Blending of contexts because of
• Design of features that allow identity and impression
• Design of features that mimic external motivators, such as
transmitting real-world cues
New vulnerability because of all-
encompassing reliance on technology
• Investigation of new cyber security risks during the
• Development of additional privacy- and security-
Appendix 3: NPMI scores for different topic models
Number of Topics
(average NPMI score)
Appendix 4: Topic modelling results
Most probable terms
mute class hear camera mic turn talk
Audio issues during online classes
day time work spend hour week today
Adjusting to working at home
email send check tomorrow invite today
Online events (non-lectures)
chat group people twitter video facebook
team business work microsoft_teams video
Comparing tools for work
class sleep tomorrow back bed miss today
Adjusting to /getting ready for online
great today team session coach work time
Catching up with team members
virtual event online tonight free tomorrow
people question time talk work find answer
Pros and cons of web-conferencing
class art today dance draw fun learn
quiz tonight family night friend fun host
Online games night
family friend home time stay connect
Staying connected with family/friends
app download phone work laptop computer
Setting up of tools (getting started)
background make change photo picture
app security privacy data user company
Security and privacy issue/concern
class f*** s*** yall gonna wanna hate
tomorrow morning day today friday week
Social interactions with work contacts
kid teacher school class parent work teach
Experiences and complaints about home-
class start wait leave end late professor
Staying tuned during online classes
good make thing feel people bad time
work home day office team job people
Experiences about work at home
play game song friend music sing fun
Hanging out with friends online
today miss love make happy day class
Social interactions during home-schooling
drink friend happy_hour wine virtual party
Online happy hours
love guy time hey chat good back
Online group gatherings
covid19 coronavirus hold conference today
Online community events
read book write story group today
Online book club
buy money pay stock make nike people
watch live show party movie episode
Online cultural events
class yoga workout online live session
Online exercise classes
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class professor lecture today online
Complaints about online classes
people make laugh funny joke thing watch
party birthday friend family celebrate
Online birthday parties
cat room dog sit house walk kid
Pets and family members during video
face show ur make camera time put
Showing one’s face during video calls
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account password people make hack free
Tackling security and privacy issues
code send post class pls ill dm
work gonna make bc lol thing happen
video record audio interview live youtube
Setting up tools (streaming, recording)
a: Topic excluded due to topic quality (ie. spam, irrelevant, or incoherent)
b: Topic excluded due to education context
camera lens photo good close picture light
church prayer service online sunday pray
Online church services
session offer online free phone book
Online service offerings
family mom dad friend sister parent brother
Online family reunions
share screen video tip host participant
Setting up tools (features)
student teacher teach learn online lesson
Announcements / experiences regarding
wear put hair today makeup day shirt
Looks during work at home
friend date wanna party quarantine miss
Online (watch) parties
people time life world vote die person