Our new research project LuotAI had just started when the Covid-19 pandemic hit the world. In our project, we study the co-creativity between humans, computers and artificial intelligence (AI) in everyday spaces and processes. One of my tasks is to interview Finnish artists who are using AI in their work. I had just done a few face-to-face interviews with the artists in different locations around Finland when my home university told the staff to avoid any traveling and urged us to work remotely due to the coronavirus outbreak.
Doing social research and fieldwork in a lockdown can at first feel a challenge. However, I am not the only person struggling with these questions. For instance, sociologist Deborah Lupton has collected a long list of methods on her blog on how to conduct digital research from a distance during the pandemic. I was able to continue my research virtually, which in this case, meant doing online interviews with the artists via a video conference system.
The rapid change into a new online medium went relatively smoothly, but it also opened up new questions about the research methods and contexts, especially in the situation when people’s daily routines, spaces and places had changed rather dramatically. Personally, I have appreciated the ease of moving to an interview venue. Instead of traveling several hours with public transportation around the country and booking tickets and babysitters and eating takeaway sandwiches in a hurry, I simply take a cup of coffee from my kitchen and walk five meters to my kid’s room, where I have set up a temporary home office (it is the only room with a proper door and a good desk in our apartment). With a couple of clicks, I see the person I am going to interview on my computer screen, and we start talking.
But where am I exactly, when I am sitting in my child’s room/home office and speaking with an artist who seems to be sitting by their computer in a kitchen, studio, summer cottage, or wherever they have established their lockdown working space? And how am I able to create an atmosphere of trust, safety and direct interaction that are required from a good research interview?
Conducting online interviews differs somewhat from real-life meetings. After the first few virtual interviews, I felt exhausted as if I had run a marathon. In a BBC interview, associate professor Gianpiero Petriglieri explains this to be normal, as video calls require more focus and attention than face-to-face meetings. It takes more energy to process the body language and other non-verbal expressions, and possible delays in the connection or other technical problems are also frustrating. It is also very strange to see one’s own face on the screen when speaking. Direct eye contact during a video call has been proved to cause the same kind of positive reactions than face-to-face meetings, but I catch my own sight wandering around the screen. Where should I look at to make direct eye contact that feels natural?
Little by little, I have become more relaxed during the online interviews. The video calls have become an important part of my weeks of social distancing, as the artists that I speak to can easily be the only adults that I “meet” for several days. I also feel very empathetic when I hear about the challenges that the artists have met because of the Covid-19 pandemic. Many exhibitions have been canceled or postponed, and planning the future can be difficult. Although the work as such has not necessarily changed much among the media artists who are used to work alone with their computers, their daily rhythms, travels and human encounters have transformed substantially. What I have experienced myself are the mutual feelings of empathy and solidarity. If a kid (mine or some of the interviewee’s) appears in the background of a video call to make funny faces, everyone is understanding and supportive (or at least I hope so).
Consequently, my experiences with online interviews are that they are a worthwhile data collection method. The virtual spaces that are created during video calls do not need to be strange and ambiguous “liminal spaces” between two different realities, but they can become interactive and real places of their own right. Digital research tools enable the participants to be at two places at the same time. Going virtual also gives new insights for our LuotAI study as we are interested in the relationship and processes between humans and computers in a spatial context. Although I am a firm believer in face-to-face human encounters, on-site research and participatory observation, I admit that online interviewing can at best form a relational, shared and safe space where to conduct social research during the Covid-19 pandemic and after it.
- Hietanen, J., Peltola, M. & Hietanen, J. (2020). Psychophysiological responses to eye contact in a live interaction and in video call. Psychophysiology. https://doi.org/10.1111/psyp.13587.
- Jiang, M. (2020). The reason Zoom calls drain your energy. BBC, Remote Control. 22nd April 2020.
- Lupton, D. (editor) (2020). Doing fieldwork in a pandemic (crowd-sourced document). Available at: https://simplysociology.wordpress.com.