THR Web Features   /   February 8, 2022

On Attentional Norms

The inevitability of Zooming while distracted.

Alan Jacobs

( Gabriel Benois via

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. The strict decorum demanded of classical music audiences was codified in the early twentieth century, largely through the influence of Gustav Mahler. By contrast, Haydn and Mozart had to put up with noisy audiences, and indeed rarely began a symphonic piece quietly because if they had done so no one would have known that the music had started. Similarly, it was common in the Middle Ages for churchgoers to chat  through most of Mass and even play cards, listening with one ear to the bells that would alert them when their attention was required. (Even the more overtly pious would often pray the rosary as the priest said the Mass, again relying on the bells as a notification system.) Still, despite changes that inevitably occur over the long term, at any given moment in time most people know what the attentional norms are for any social endeavor they participate in.

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.

We endured a big ice storm here in central Texas, and my employer, Baylor University, instructed us all to hold our classes online. I cheerfully complied with this directive—but I did not convene class on Zoom. I did not convene class on Zoom because as a teacher of many years experience I have found it impossible to adjust my pedagogy to the attentional norms I have just described.

When I meet with a class on Zoom, I try with limited success to keep my focus on what I’m saying, or what one of my students is saying, while at any given time half of the faces arrayed before me in on the grid are out of view or turned in profile as they speak to unseen interlocutors. It doesn’t matter how firmly I insist at the beginning of a session that people need to pay attention, they just don’t, and they fail to heed these instructions not because they are disrespectful to me but rather because they have internalized the Zoom Norms that allow them to alternate easily between presence and absence.

My instructions lack the force that habituation enjoys. The only way that I could address this problem would be to pause—and to pause often—in the midst of whatever I am saying to tell someone to come back and pay attention. But, of course, in many cases the person wouldn’t be able to hear me, and my interjections would be so frequent that there would be less and less of substance in the class session to be inattentive to. Again: Such interjections would have to be frequent because I lack the power to reset the attentional norms that have recently, but firmly, taken hold..

So, when faced with the need to conduct remote digital classes, I don’t Zoom. Instead, I record and upload a video, ask my students to watch it and reply to it, and then record and upload a second video with my responses to their questions and comments. It’s not ideal by any means, but I think it is better than the alternatives. At least if they’re inattentive, I don’t have to see it.

So far, I haven’t noticed any tendency among my students to employ the attentional norms of Zoom when we are in class together, but that may be because I forbid all use of digital devices in my classes. Without their devices, they have fewer opportunities to be distracted. They can always doodle, but then I doodled my way through my entire college and graduate school career and found that the doodling actually helped me to be more attentive to what my teachers were saying. 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.