The Challenges of Recognizing Collective Affect Online

Soon after he fell ill and went off duty due to his personal struggle with COVID-19, Boris Johnson, prime minister of the United Kingdom, rediscovered society, declaring to the British and global media that there is indeed “really . . . such a thing as society” and that it could and should, moreover, pull together to overcome the global pandemic. As we make our way through it, I find myself frequently turning to Émile Durkheim, but with a focus on his insights into the constitution of collective affect, rather than his assertions about the nature of society as indisputable social force. To put it bluntly, I realize that I deeply miss being with people even though I am spending all day with them via Zoom.

You can’t just add up the emotions from each little box of a person on Zoom and get a sense of the vibe in the room.

I initially thought what I missed was a sense of collective intellectual engagement, but I have now taught several weeks’ worth of online graduate seminars and taken part in a lively weekly online reading group, and yet I still feel like something fundamental is missing from my daily life. It cannot be physical contact with others as I am not a very physical person except with members of my close family—all currently spending 24 hours a day with me in the same small four-bedroom house while in lockdown.

So I think my sense of social isolation might be due to other reasons, namely stemming from having much less of an awareness of other people’s affective states. I can glean a bit of how others are thinking and feeling over audio and video via Skype or Zoom, but it isn’t nearly the same as the intuitive feeling you get when you are in the same room with someone, much less within a group of people. As Durkheim pointed out, collective affect simply isn’t a matter of 1 + 1 + 1 + 1; you can’t just add up the emotions from each little box of a person on Zoom and get a sense of the vibe in the room. It is much more about the often tacit, deeply embodied ways we communicate and collectively create affect, be it “collective effervescence” or something much less profound.

I can imagine spaces where this is achieved online, for example, via participation in collective gaming or on avatar-based interactive sites such as Second Life. For those of us who are removed from such specifically emotionally and physically charged forms of digital interaction, and who find ourselves surprised to be slogging through one Zoom meeting after another, the increased challenge in recognizing, much less attempting to alter, the tenor of collective affect (in addition to simultaneously having to cope with bad sound quality and the strain on our eyes from all these extra hours of staring at computer screens) may be the biggest drawback of shifting so many social interactions online.

Susanna Trnka is an associate professor of social anthropology at the University of Auckland in New Zealand.

Cite as: Trnka, Susanna. 2020. “The Challenges of Recognizing Collective Affect Online.” Anthropology News website, June 5, 2020. DOI: 10.1111/AN.1415

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