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The Zoom Gaze

The Zoom Gaze

I’ve been doing video conferencing pretty intently since 2016 in connection with my Virtually Connecting work. This work has been technical, social, and critical. It has compelled me to ask questions around power, voice, and visibility. As the whole world distances from one another physically in fear of a sickness which could be nothing or could be death, those who have the means use this technology as a way to simulate normality. But all of this is anything but normal.

I’ve been thinking about the power of looking, seeing, and being seen – of speaking, listening, and being heard – of touching, feeling, and being felt. That last one is tricky and the one in which the physicality is problematic but as an act of emotion seems to come through from time to time in this virtual space – or perhaps we just yearn for it so much that the approximation is close enough.

There has been a lot of talk about not forcing students to turn cameras on and I advocate for this. I advocate for this out of an attempt to create equitable spaces as I know that not everyone can show their face/space. That video takes more bandwidth and so there is a technical inequity that privileges those with speedy internet and fancy equipment. Also, it is cultural in that we don’t just show our faces but we show our places and sometimes that is problematic for a variety of reasons. 

Even with this, as we begin the fall term I cannot help but think about the power dynamics at play in all of this. Gaze has a history and has been evaluated from multiple angles including the gaze as pure power such as in surveillance with Foucault’s panopticon and as racism in hooks’ the oppositional gaze; gendered analysis in the male gaze comes from Mulvey and the feminine gaze from Butler, and nationalized in the imperial gaze of Kaplan. 

My understanding of Gaze is limited but it seems to me that in all of the constructs of it above that the viewed is greatly impacted by the seer. The one who is being looked upon changes their behaviour, as well as their sense of self, because of the viewer. In our current time, in the “age of COVID-19”, what does it mean for so many of us to be under the Zoom Gaze? What does it mean for a teacher to see some of their students and to not see others? 

It is wonderful to give students the option of turning their cameras on or not but are there underlying power dynamics (unconscious, implicit, and unintended) of being seen that still create inequities in these environments? Are teachers unconsciously tuned in to faces, expressions, body language in such a way that privileges students who are privileged to have fast bandwidth, nice cameras, and good microphones? My gut tells me yes. 

And so “allowing” students to not have their camera on in our class session may seem like the super nice thing to do and a way to make your classes equitable but I’m coming to feel like it is actually the least that you can do. 

Here are my questions (which I don’t have answers to):

  • What is Zoom Gaze and what does it look like given different pedagogies and functions of technology?
  • How do we recognize the power structures within the Zoom Gaze?
  • How do we challenge the Zoom Gaze power structures to not perpetuate inequities?
  • Are there overlaps between Zoom Gaze and the development of parasocial interactions/relationships

Featured Image by Михаил Прокопенко from Pixabay 

3 thoughts on “The Zoom Gaze

  1. Great questions Autumm. I am not sure the answers. I know that I have heard from a number of students and faculty doing advising and tutoring about how much they appreciate being able to see one another– and from those same folks, how much they don’t want to share their camera in classes or bigger groups. I wonder if there is a balance around the intimacy of an interaction. I did have a student who I did advising with who the first two times we met, didn’t share their camera, while I did. On our third meeting they did share and specifically said they appreciated sharing because they felt safe to do so but they were hoping none of their instructors would require them to. We have also been talking about working with students to personalize their zoom boxes if they don’t share screens.

    I am not sure what the answer is– but I think you are raising an important question and conversation.

  2. Love this, Autumm. And I also think of two other things: the self-surveillance of seeing oneself on Zoom all day long (and why I value what y9u taught me about turning my view of myself off even if camera is on)… and the power of some ppl being seen and others not in the same space. That it can empower those w camera on to get noticed, but also those w camera on to get surveilled/observed.

  3. I’m wondering about folks not neurotypical who don’t necessarily respond to gaze in the same way…

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