Author Michael Schrage muses about the hazards of Web video conferencing, namely that it displays our faces, warts and all (literally)
Posted on Harvard Business Review: April 22, 2010 1:56 PM
I'm not a vain person, but I looked hideous. I scared myself. My sorry image wasn't staring back at me from a bathroom mirror but from my Apple laptop. I was advising Oovoo, a web video-teleconferencing company, about their innovation roadmap, and I was testing their service. As I videochatted with the immaculately groomed and well-dressed bizdev guy, my stubbly onscreen image irritated and distracted me. Is that what I look like? Perhaps I should stick to the phone...
My immediate recommendation? The service should give users the opportunity to see themselves before they network into the videconference. People should have the chance to pluck out that strand of spinach between their teeth, unsmudge their makeup, or pat down those unruly strands of hair. You want to see the image you'll project to others.
This experience dredged up a repressed childhood memory of the The Jetsons, a 1960s Hanna-Barbera cartoon series set in a future of flying cars and robot servants. In one episode, Jane Jetson, the mother in the family, held up a mask in front of her face as she participated in a video call with a friend. The mask concealed her unmade face and unkempt hair. She projected prettiness.
I couldn't help thinking I would have liked a digital enhancement or editing option that would have made my image just a smidgen more appealing. Appearances may be deceiving but they're what people see. Could the digital motion capture technologies that made the exquisite facial expressions of the blue-hued Na'vi on Avatar possible be cheaply adapted to amplify the attractiveness of videoconferencing faces? Even Steven Spielberg has described motion-capture as digital makeup. Digital photo editing and enhancing is already a billion-dollar global business.
Telecommuters might quite happily pay good money out of their own pockets for software that lets them look terrific on broadband without having to shave or put on makeup. Apple could do quite well with branded "iLookBetter" apps to improve one's videoconference aesthetic. Why shouldn't there be an Avon or Estee Lauder of digital makeup? Why wouldn't people use digital special effects to cut through the clutter to present better onscreen? People add effects to make their PowerPoint and Keynote presentations more animated. Why not make their own projected persona more animated?
More sober speculation suggests that even the most innovative technologies don't let us escape our lizard brains. Looks matter. Parents can preach that beauty is only skin deep and societies can pass anti-discrimination laws but what people look like—and don't look like—unquestionably influences interpersonal behaviors and expectations. The rise of faster, cheaper, and better bandwidth may, perversely, make it easier to import our stereotypes to cyberspace. Remember that wonderful New Yorker cartoon: "On the internet, nobody knows you're a dog."? With pervasive videoconferencing, everyone will know about your pimples, weight gains, and hair loss—even far-flung colleagues and customers in New Delhi and Shanghai you've never met in person.
Is it sleazy or unethical to digitally edit out your pimples? Is it wrong to digitally color or thicken your hair? Are you a liar to thin your face just a bit before making that big videoconferencing presentation to a client 3,500 miles away? You would have flown there, of course, but an Icelandic volcano eruption got in the way.
I'd bet that the high-resolution broadband aesthetic will spur further interest in cosmetic surgeries, from Botox to liposuctions to facelifts, for men and women alike. After all, more colleagues, clients, and prospects will increasingly expect to see more of you. A growing portion of the professional population will decide whether it makes more sense to physically improve their appearance using medical knives and needles or to digitally upgrade themselves using videoconferencing software enhancements. Which investment would make you feel better about yourself and your appearance?
If we do live in a world where green sensibilities and carbon taxes make travel more expensive and less common while telecommuting and videoconferencing become more ubiquitous, then these questions cease to be hypothetical. They become essential to how we use technology to manage presence and presentation. How we appear—how we look—will become more important, not less, in this emerging environment. Don't just check yourself in the mirror; examine yourself onscreen. Make sure you know your good side. Now, if you'll excuse me, I need to shave.