Trouble-makers: Audio-video distortions as a relational resource in couples’ video calls


March 18, 2014


Sean Rintel


University of Queensland


Consumer-level video calling has had one of the longest journeys to mainstream use of any post Industrial Revolution communication technology. While the technology is approaching technological maturity, the combined limitations of consumer-level systems and bandwidth mean that at some point most users will have cope with audio and video distortions. In this talk, instead of measuring the threshold perception of distortions or how distortions affect tasks, I focus on how people treat distortions as a conversational concern. Drawing on examples from couples’ experiences from two-month field trials, I show that coping requires practices for conversational and expressive continuity that treat the technology as framing but not determining their activity. That is, couples can be trouble-makers, but in the counter-intuitive manner of making actual or potential trouble a relevant part of ‘doing being a couple via video calling’. Couples can opportunistically use audio and video distortions as disambiguating or expressive resources rather than simply treating them as perturbing talk or outside of relational talk. More broadly, I argue that in the personal interaction technology space these kinds of creative responses to distortions are an as-yet under-developed piece of the technology adoption puzzle. Users are not necessarily interested in replicating face-to-face interaction. They are looking to act in social ways. Technology is part of that action, but it is as much a creative and moral resource used to account for social actions as it is the ‘container’ or ‘conduit’.


Sean Rintel

Dr Sean Rintel is a Lecturer in Strategic Communication in the School of Journalism and Communication at The University of Queensland, Brisbane, Australia. His research focuses on how the affordances and constraints of communication technologies interact with language, social action, and culture. He specialises in consumer video calling and has also researched Internet Relay Chat, online forums, social media, and memes and Internet culture. He is a regular contributor to The Conversation and frequently provides media opinions on communication technology issues. He is also the current Chair of Electronic Frontiers Australia, a non-profit digital rights organisation that has been an advocate for Australians’ digital freedom, access, and privacy since 1994.