Webcams in work meetings
Eviart /

It’s a bit odd when you’re the only one in a work meeting not using the webcam. A sea of floating heads are nodding and gazing off to the side as dutiful employees, and yours is merely a conspicuous grayish circle icon that looks like your face never finished uploading.

It must appear to your coworkers as if you’re busy pooping all day or in the witness protection program or have a face that’s been mangled like Tom Cruise in Vanilla Sky after taking a left off a bridge. At the very least, it seems anti-social.

Out of all the tech inventions of the past 30 years, the webcam is perhaps the most irksome. Our laptops are incredibly personal devices, and perched right at the top of them is a camera always pointed at your face, like it’s an ATM or self-checkout camera making sure you’re not stealing. The Q key was gone when I got here, I swear.

Please, No Cameras

Suffice to say, I don’t like them, and tend to never activate my webcam unless it’s absolutely necessary, like recording myself tap dancing or practicing my lightsaber moves. This is obviously a personality-based reaction. I tend to be the type of person who doesn’t take a lot of selfies, and if at a party and someone starts filming, they usually get a great shot of me looking like I’m about to punch them.

This attitude can be a bit awkward when you’re a remote worker and have never met your boss or coworkers in person. Here’s the probably wrong way I see it: I’ll show up on time and do good work, but I didn’t agree to be on camera while doing so.

Besides, I activated my webcam for the job interviews to get the gig, isn’t that enough? How much must a man sacrifice?

Many are totally comfortable with cameras being everywhere in our lives, and will activate their webcam during work meetings without even thinking about it. It’s become the default, almost polite thing to do, and maybe I’m the jerk for not participating (I am in most situations). We all understand that communication is helped by visual cues and that activating your webcam helps make potentially alienating virtual meetings a little more personal.

On Camera Without Being On Camera

I agree, but that’s not what’s happening in most work meetings. No one is looking at each other or even engaging the camera in at all a social manner. They’re clicking on other websites, looking off in the distance, checking their phone, petting their cat, and so on–which is all fine, but I don’t need to stare at a sea of disinterested faces, and we might as well all just have the webcams off (and to be fair and avoid this, I turn off their video feeds too).

Obviously, direct eye contact with webcams is not entirely plausible, and even without eye contact seeing a person’s face while they’re talking adds context to tone and meaning. Most of the time, however, that’s not what’s happening: we’re just seeing a blank look on five to ten faces with their rooms behind them or whatever (usually geeky) artificial background they set.

Many are obviously not even on their virtual meeting tab and looking at some other page, so essentially everyone is on camera while not looking at anyone else’s face, as if doing so would turn them to sand. And here I thought I was missing something.

None of these petty criticisms mean that I somehow know how to conduct virtual work meetings better. A virtual meeting where you have to be more visually engaged and that involves eye contact sounds exhausting, and I enjoy the casual atmosphere of “This a work meeting but feel free to look at other sites and go pee.” That’s always better than a meeting in an actual boardroom where you’re sitting around a long table putting on your best paying-attention face.

By the end of those types of meetings I’m usually half-slumped in my chair, staring off into the void until my boss says something like, “Chason, anything you want to add?” “Nah I’m good.”

So I’m not complaining, and if the virtual meeting has like three or four people and we’re having a silly, friendly conversation, I will sometimes (sometimes) leave my webcam on. But most of the time, the Disinterested Floating Heads Looking at Other Things show isn’t something I’m excited to tune into or be filmed watching.

In any case, it would take far too long to clean off the chunk of dried concrete my webcam is covered with.

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