02-06-2020

VIRTUAL EXPERIENCES LEAVE ME FEELING FLAT

Virtual communication may be the new norm, but just how does it compare to in-person interaction? Here, Shireen explores some of its shortcomings.

Shireen Shurmer

Video communication platforms are providing a functional replacement for face-to-face interaction right now, and I’m nothing but grateful for the role these tools are playing in enabling effective remote working and communication with our loved ones. But, for me, the shortcomings of virtual communication are also becoming clearer by the day.

My weekly Zoom chats with my friends are beginning to leave me cold. We’ve quickly discovered that it’s almost impossible to replicate the natural conversation and banter of our normal gatherings. A couple of weeks ago we went to a friend’s virtual 50th birthday ‘party’, complete with silly hats, fizz and a birthday themed quiz. Heart-warming though it was to see so many people gathered, when it was over I was saddened by the thought that this might be the shape of personal celebrations for the foreseeable future.

As a big fan of live comedy, last week I bought tickets for a virtual gig, which brought together a few of my favourite comedians for an hour online. While it was good to laugh, the format didn’t work for me. It just lacked the sense of joyful communion that comes from sharing the joke with a room full of others. I imagine it was a soul-destroying exercise for the comics too, to perform their material without the instant reaction of a live audience. What is comedy without heckling, without the direct feedback of a joke that dies, or one that has the audience snorting with laughter?

All of this brings home the truth that so much of our communication, whether in personal or business settings, is about two-way interaction, reciprocal conversation, building rapport, listening and reacting. Facial expression, body language and some sort of physical interplay is fundamental to engagement and emotional connection. And face-to-face encounters of all kinds have a mood and energy of their own that is simply missing from their virtual equivalents.

By necessity, we’re now confronting the idea that all sorts of live events – from festivals and flower shows to conferences and product launches – will take on new forms this year. And in the business sphere we’re seeing an explosion of new propositions for digital event platforms and virtual exhibitions.

For now, the crisis is the crisis. This is what we have and I guess we’ll make do with poor replicas of the experiences we really want because we have no choice. But when the current public health threat eventually subsides, I for one believe that the natural human appetite to cultivate relationships and connect in the real world will soon be restored, and I hope that my calendar will be full of live events again. Life lived behind a screen – whether for business or pleasure – is just too flat for me.