Friday, June 12, 2009

Microsoft's LiveCam: The Value of Narcissism

Yesterday, I participated in Microsoft’s grand experiment in a “virtual summit”, by installing Microsoft LiveCam on my PC at home and then doing three briefings by videoconferencing (two user briefings lacked video, and the keynote required audio via phone). The success rate wasn’t high; in two of the three briefings, we never did succeed in getting both sides to view video, and in one briefing, the audio kept fading in and out. From some of the comments on Twitter, many of my fellow analysts were unimpressed by their experiences.

However, in the one briefing that worked, I found there was a different “feel” to the briefing. Trying to isolate the source of that “feel” – after all, I’ve seen jerky 15-fps videos on my PC before, and video presentations with audio interaction – I realized that there was one aspect to it that was unique: not only did I (and the other side) see each other; we also saw ourselves. And that’s one possibility of videoconferencing that I’ve never seen commented on (although see

The vendor-analyst interaction, after all, is an alternation of statements meant to convince: the vendor, about the value of the solution; the analyst, about the value of the analysis. Each of those speaker statements is “set up” immediately previously by the speaker acting as listener. Or, to put it very broadly, in this type of interaction a good listener makes a good convincer.

So the key value of a videoconference of this type is that instant feedback about how one is coming across as both a listener and speaker is of immense value. With peripheral vision the speaker can adjust his or her style so he/she appears more convincing to himself/herself; and the listener can adjust his or her style so as to emphasize interest in the points that he/she will use as a springboard to convince in his/her next turn as speaker. This is something I’ve found to work in violin practice as well: it allows the user to move quickly to playing with the technique and expression that one is aiming to employ.

So, by all means, criticize the way the system works intermittently and isn’t flexible enough to handle all “virtual summit” situations, the difficulties in getting it to work, and the lack of face-to-face richer information-passing. But I have to tell you, if all of the summit had been like that one brief 20 minutes where everything worked and both sides could see the way they came across, I would actually prefer that to face-to-face meetings.

“O wad some God the giftie gie us,” said my ancestors’ countryman, Scotsman Robbie Burns, “To see ourselves as others see us.” The implication, most have assumed, is that we would be ashamed of our behavior. But with something like Microsoft’s LiveCam, I think the implication is that we would immediately change our behavior so we liked what we saw; and would be the better for our narcissism.

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