Text & Photos—Mark Mann
Recently I was sitting with my one-year-old son on the sofa in his bedroom as he looked out the window. He watched the street, and I watched him. At some point, I realized I was gazing at his expression with the same fascination that he bestowed on parked cars and recycling bins. Neither of us found it strange.
Under most circumstances it’s awkward to stare, but babies need attention like oxygen, and with little ones, there’s no end to simply looking. Past childhood, eye contact becomes more complicated. It’s daunting and also thrilling. We can only handle so much, yet we need it.
During this grand civilizational experiment in mutual avoidance, maybe physical touch isn’t the most essential thing we’ve lost: maybe it’s each other’s eyes. Video chat apps seem to offer solace, but have you noticed how there’s really no eye contact on the internet?
The next time you call a friend on FaceTime or Facebook Messenger, or join a meeting on Zoom or Skype, try looking them in the eyes. It’s impossible. To do it, you’d both have to stare directly into the camera, and then, of course, you wouldn’t see each other.
What you get instead is a paradox: the unusual freedom to study each other’s faces — the way only lovers do, or parents and children — but with a connection that is always slightly out of focus.
Perhaps recognizing the discrepancy between real and virtual contact, Apple briefly tried to fix this problem in FaceTime. Last summer, the company experimented with a “FaceTime Attention Correction” feature on some iPhones, which warped the user’s eye area slightly to create realistic-looking fake eye contact, The Verge reported. But the feature never went past beta. Apparently it was too creepy. One wonders if the software inadvertently created the impression of sustained direct eye contact. For most people, the comfortable limit is only three seconds.
One morning about a month after beginning home isolation, I sent a flurry of emails to researchers who study face perception and social interaction.
“Eye contact, or the perception of direct gaze, is critical for our species,” wrote back Nicolas Burra, a researcher at the University of Geneva.
”It is through eye contact that we indicate our interest in others, thus engaging in conversation and creating a bond of intimacy between us.” Simply, eye contact is how we let each other know that we matter. We depend on other people’s eyes to feel included; without that signal, we feel profoundly alienated.
Dr. Eric Wesselmann (Ph.D.), a psychology professor and researcher at Illinois State University, suggests that we shave off a degree of subtlety in video calls, but it’s not necessarily a big deal. ”I think that technologically mediated eye contact still will satisfy the basic purpose of communicating interest, at least in broad strokes,” he wrote.
The bigger danger, Wesselmann thinks, is the temptation to multi-task during virtual chats. It may be appropriate in work meetings, but we should avoid it during social calls with family and friends. ”In these situations, we will have to work hard to be mindful about being in the moment and resist the urge to divide our attention,” he says.
Guilty. On group Zoom calls, I have often opened a different window and scrolled through social media or pulled up a news site. Sometimes I click back quickly to the meeting and try to catch myself in the act, to see if I look distracted. Invariably, I really do seem absorbed by the conversation.
I’ve tested this theory on a few friends and they were skeptical, but to me, distraction and attention look very similar on video chat.
I’ve learned to help myself concentrate on the people in the meeting by “pinning” the screens of those who aren’t talking, rather than the ones who are. Perhaps it verges on voyeurism, but it creates a needed sense of closeness. It’s a gift to be able to contemplate each other’s faces, in ways that the intensity of eye contact forbids.
There are other types of intimacy that video chat affords. Yesterday, my wife was cutting my hair in the backyard, and I pulled up my parents on my phone. We didn’t really concern ourselves with looking at each other. Sometimes we’d point the camera at this or that — the cat, the bird feeder, the twig hanging from my son’s mouth — but mostly we were just hanging out.
Mark Mann is an associate editor-in-chief at BESIDE, the managing editor at Research Money, and a contributing editor at the art criticism website Momus. He specializes in literary longform essays and narrative journalism. He’s currently working on his first book, a non-fiction account of the institutions for people with developmental disabilities in Ontario.