On Attentional Norms: The inevitability of Zooming while distracted.

Essay by Alan Jacobs: “Every medium of communication has its own attentional norms. Like all tacit rules that govern behavior, they get violated, but the violators typically act deliberately. For instance, the people who talk aloud in the movie theater typically aren’t ignorant of the norms; they transgress them for the lulz. Human beings are extremely skilled at recognizing and internalizing the norms of any given medium or environment.

Such norms are not set in stone but rather can alter over time….

It has been interesting to watch over the last two pandemic years as the norms associated with videoconferencing have coalesced. My experience strongly suggests that the attention level expected on Zoom (and other videoconferencing platforms) is quite remarkably low—medieval-churchgoing low. Obviously, there will be exceptions to this norm—no one feels free to look away when the Boss is giving a speech—but I can’t remember the last time I was on a Zoom call in which participants were not regularly cutting their video and audio, or just their audio, to talk to people in the room with them. Or they just walk out of frame for a few minutes. Or they type away furiously on Slack or email or WhatsApp or iMessage. And no one who does this acts inappropriately, because such fidgeting and alternations of attention are permitted by the norms that have emerged.

The primary exceptions to these rules, aside from the etiquette demanded of those who must listen to the Boss, occur when there are fewer than four people involved in a conversation. If there are just two or three of you, people know that before stepping away from the conversation they need to (a) inform their interlocutors of what they’re about to do, and then (b) apologize when they return. But as long as the person speaking has an audience of more than two, all bets are off. Each of us can come and go at need, or at impulse….

Distractions come in many varieties, and some apparent distractions aren’t really distractions at all. But Zoom, it seems to me, is a medium that offers constant permission to be distracted. And while the norms of any particular moment are in a sense not objectively good or bad, they can be good or bad in relation to certain human purposes. The purposes I have in my classes are not compatible with the attentional norms that we’ve learned to employ in our teleconferencing pandemic…(More)”