From Pinhole to Black Hole: Why Video Chat Rules Messaging

A Modern Miniaturization

As a tool of connection, video chat has no equal. It is immediate, aural, and visual — qualities that liken it to face-to-face interaction, a strong recommendation to our social natures. Unlike audio and text chat, video chat demonstrates our conversational partner’s physical existence, independent of their physical presence. We look them in the two-dimensional electronic representation of an eye and know that, somewhere in the world, they exist.

That is a truly modern experience.


The first cameras producing storable images emerged in the mid-1800s, the first moving-image cameras late in the same century. Digital video cameras didn’t emerge until the Sony VX1000 almost a hundred years later. (It took ten more years, still—until 2004—to develop an independently-functioning, consumer-use digital video camera. Surprisingly the webcam was an earlier invention.) That means that, if you are over the age of thirty, the first digital video camera you bought is probably younger than the kid who flips your burgers.


As components grew smaller, 

the data grew larger.


Even then, though, the video revolution didn’t stop. If it had, your computer would have a baseball-sized globe perched above your screen, capturing video at Blair Witch Project quality. Instead, there’s a tiny black hole in your monitor, not much bigger than the aperture of a pinhole camera. That buggy glass eye can take in and process vast quantities of information and spit it back out onto a computer screen with an accurate picture of whatever you show to it. The components of digital cameras have grown smaller and smaller, fitting in your home, on your desk, in your pocket, while the amount of data they capture has grown larger and larger. This inverse trend is attractive to consumers. The Pew Research Center estimates that nearly three billion people have a working computer in their household, and most computers have some kind of webcam.

That is where we are right now with digital video technology. The best part is, you probably didn’t even notice.


Conflict and Convenience Shake Hands Live

With progress in technology has come progress in culture. In a remarkably short amount of time, humans have learned to use digital video to simplify myriad daily tasks (as we do with any new tool). We conduct business meetings, customer service consultations, personal calls, artistic performances, and journalistic interviews via video chat. We monitor pets, children, and homes with live camera feeds. We broadcast from our phones every day, openly, in real-time, without a second thought.

And as crazy as it sounds, it makes sense.

The ubiquity of digital video comes first and foremost from a level of convenience. With video chat, we no longer have to compose a letter or place a phone call or board a plane to transmit messages or convey feelings. We don’t even have to craft an email, painstakingly edited for appropriate tone and syntax, though I’m sure we’ll miss those days fondly. Instead, we can sit in our home or office and speak face-to-face across the world, with much less effort and much more comfort than ever before. (If you’re part of the 11% of videoconference participants who don’t wear pants, congrats, you’re even comfier.)


In a stratified global world, nothing is as powerful as live video.


Millennials, who represent at least one fifth of the worldwide population and comprise the largest generation ever in the United States, have grown up in this comfort. They are accustomed to it and they like it. And why not? Their world is more tumultuous, more international, more connected than ever before, and they are making choices that reflect that position. Instantaneous video communication might be convenient, but it is also egalitarian and informative. It is difficult to manipulate technically, easy to access broadly, and applicable socially, politically, and personally to their daily lives. In a stratified global world, nothing is as powerful.

The aptitude Millennials demonstrate for familiar technologies has played an instrumental role in the rapid diversification of the digital video sector. As such a massive market demographic, it’s no wonder that their interests drive trends, but it is surprising how many social formats have reaped the benefits. Recently, live video broadcasting has seen the boon of popular attention, Millennial and otherwise. From classic chat rooms like Paltalk, where users jump on cam to argue a point or share an idea, to emerging leaderboard models like YouNow or Periscope, where the most entertaining broadcasters get the most love, people have flocked to the latest apps and trends, hoping to beat the competition. Where that competition is going we don’t know, but you can bet digital video is along for the ride.


More Than a Blank Screen

The draw of digital video is not social alone, though. There’s also a solid psychological basis behind its success.

Christabel Jarrold

Studies show that video chat is a more effective means of communication than any other digitally mediated method. Video conversations between strangers generate levels of trust and cooperation similar to face-to-face interactions (Bos et al., 2001), probably because live chat preserves conversational cues that help us remain alert and engaged. These “affiliation cues” (Sherman et al., 2013), including facial expressions and body positioning, are largely non-verbal and subconscious, making them well suited to visual modes of communication. Live video (of any decent quality) is such a visual mode.

Like affiliation cues, social contingencies also express themselves more clearly over video chat. Think of a children’s television show in which the host will “address the camera…pause for a few seconds, and then respond” as if to a child on the other side of the broadcast (Roseberry et al., 2016). Even young children recognize that the on-screen personality is not actually speaking to them. There is no weight, no social contingency, to their success or failure to respond, and they are therefore less engaged with such media.

With video chat, however, people of all ages recognize subtle clues that indicate a direct connection across time and space. Toddlers taught via interactive video are exposed to social contingencies similar to those of live interactions and therefore acquire language more quickly than those exposed to prerecorded video (Roseberry, et al., 2016). When a child is asked a question or presented knowledge via live video, they are engaging in the social activity of learning. These social contingencies help children retain information much more effectively than pre-recorded video.

Even non-social video can be persuasive and educational. Advertisements meant to encourage healthy lifestyle changes are much more effective in video format than as text or mixed media (Soetens, et al., 2014). There is something especially influential and attractive about video, powerful enough to encourage altered or unusual behavior.


Chat Rooms Aren’t Just for Nerds

Video chat is a formidable means of communication. On a psychological level, it helps us focus, learn, and bond. On a social level, it helps us connect, engage, and achieve. It is widely accessible in the industrialized world and its many iterations enjoy a depth of culture that has grown and evolved with its user base.


Video chat is no longer a fad or a hobby for tech geeks.


The versatility of the video chat experience affects people whether they are watching, broadcasting, or both. In the ever-expanding digital world, there is a place for everyone. Video chat is no longer a fad or a hobby for tech geeks. It is communication at its strongest. Go live. Activate your cam. Join a chat room or start a vlog. Call your brother across an ocean or catch a glimpse of the karaoke scene half a world away. We live in a world of connection, and with digital video, it has never been easier. 

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