Talking about things: Image-based topical talk and intimacy in video-mediated family communication

Moustafa Zouinar and Julia Velkovska
Conservatoire National des Arts et Métiers, and Orange Labs Paris | Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales and Orange Labs, Paris

Abstract

This paper focuses on how conversation and a shared participation frame are maintained in video-mediated family conversations which ordinarily do not have a particular agenda. In order to examine this question, how conversations are maintained whilst being sometimes improvised, the paper analyses a particular interactional phenomenon, namely, the image-based topic management accomplished via two methods: showings and noticings. Through a detailed multimodal analysis of family video mediated conversations, it shows how these methods are used for introducing or changing topics and hence sustaining talk. Moreover, by describing the practical actions that involve technological and social dimensions, the paper highlights the link between interaction, personal relationships and technology. The analysis of showings and noticings, enabled by the technical features of the systems used by the participants, reveals how video-communication technology is mobilized by family members as a resource for maintaining intimacy in distant relationships.

Keywords:
Table of contents

1.Introduction

Throughout the 20th century, video communication has been thought of as one of the symbols of cutting edge technological development, associated with values of modernity and innovation. Cinematic history offers fascinating insights to these visions starting with the famous first video call appearing as far back as 1927 when Fritz Lang showed one in his Metropolis; these have continued, in the following decades, with a variety of imagined technological representations, interactional situations as well as ambiguous and even contradictory social consequences that follow on from video mediated communication.11.For a chronological set of appearances of videophones in movies, see http://​berglondon​.com​/blog​/2012​/03​/13​/notes​-on​-videophones​-in​-film/ On the one hand, in movies criticizing industrial capitalism, video communication is represented as a tool for surveillance and control of the working class that, along with other technologies (like assembly line work), is used by the rulers to guarantee their power and domination over the ruled. This was shown in the already mentioned Metropolis and in Chaplin’s Modern times (1936). This is especially apparent in Modern Times where the manager makes video calls and opens video screens in a sudden and unexpected manner for his subordinates. But on the other hand, in later futuristic visions, video communication also prefigures cutting edge scientific and technological achievements with positive social fallouts: for example, allowing a video call between a space station and the Earth as in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey.22.See also Relieu (2007)Relieu, M. 2007 “La téléprésence, ou l’autre visiophonie.” In «De la rue au tribunal. Etudes sur la visiocommunication. Réseaux 144, ed. by C. Licoppe, and M. Relieu, 183–224. Paris: Hermès.Google Scholar for a historical overview of video communication devices and interaction models, real and imagined.

Although the depicted situation in A Space Odyssey is quite extraordinary, this pioneer scene of family use of video communication between the father (Dr. Floyd, a central character in the movie) on the space station and his daughter, located at home, though made in 1968, already features many of the characteristics that we find in video interaction today. We can notice, for example, the emotional involvement and the display of pleasure and joy of the participants while seeing each other; in particular, smiling at the initial appearance of the other’s image at the beginning of the call; the lack of a particular subject or agenda, the only motive of the call being to keep in touch as well as the banality of topics talked about, contrasting with the futuristic setting of the space station (e.g., the father asks a series of questions such as “How are you”, "What are you doing”, “Where’s mummy”, then they talk about the daughter’s birthday party and present). As in other 20th century movies, video-mediated interaction is imagined mostly around the model of an enriched phone call: participants stare at each other while talking in a manner similar to the phone call, the visual properties of the media do not affect the conversational structure, they are not directly used to introduce and develop topics (like commenting on the partner’s appearance or showing objects or details of the local environment, the space station providing interesting opportunities for that).

In the light of these historical representations, featuring the extraordinariness of video technology in exceptional social situations, it is striking to note the extreme triviality that marks the actual use of video in domestic environments in contemporary life. Far from the domain of the revolutionary and the exceptional, contemporary video calls make observable everyday interactional work of “doing” being (Sacks 1984 1984 “On Doing ‘Being Ordinary.’” In Structures of social action. Studies in Conversation Analysis, ed. by M. Atkinson, and J. Heritage, 413–429. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar) a family: such doings include keeping in touch, exchanging news, displaying mutual closeness, affection and care, talking about this and that (about children, the weather or dinner); in brief, just spending time together. Video technology seems to support what one might say is the opportunistic character of family conversations as participants invent a variety of practices to make sense and use of the visual dimensions of their communications (e.g. Sunakawa 2012Sunakawa, C. 2012 “Japanese Family via Webcam: An Ethnographic Study of Cross-Spatial Interactions.” In Lecture Notes, in Computer Science, vol. 7258, ed. by M. Okumura, D. Bekki, and K. Satoh, 264–276. Berlin-Heidelberg: Springer-Verlag.Google Scholar; Licoppe & Morel 2014Licoppe, C., and J. Morel 2014 “Mundane Video Directors in Interaction. Showing One’s Environment in Skype and Mobile Video Calls.” In M. Broth, E. Laurier, and L. Mondada (eds.), Studies of Video Practices, Video at Work, 135–160. London: Routledge.Google Scholar).

Regarding these characteristics, our paper aims to investigate the practical organization of such mediated conversations between family relatives. In particular, the ways video technology is enrolled in displaying and maintaining relationships. We are interested in how conversation and a shared participation frame are maintained through time in video-mediated conversations which ordinarily do not have a particular agenda. This is in contrast to video conferences in work settings, which we will presume do have agendas – planned purposes. In order to take a closer look at this question, the organised character of video communication despite their improvised feel, we focus on a particular interactional phenomenon: the image-based topic introduction and management accomplished through showings and noticings.

2.Background: Topical talk

Topicality, the way in which topics are managed in interactions, is a central feature of conversations. Research in conversation analysis (e.g. Maynard 1980Maynard, D. W. 1980 “Placement of Topic Choices in Conversation.” Semiotica 30: 263–290. CrossrefGoogle Scholar; Maynard & Zimmerman 1984Maynard, D. W., and D. H. Zimmerman 1984 “Topical Talk, Ritual and the Social Organization of Relationships.” Social Psychology Quarterly, vol. 47: 301–316. CrossrefGoogle Scholar; Schegloff 1990 1990 “The Organization of Sequences as a Source of Coherence in Talk-in-Interaction.” In Conversational Organization and its Development, ed. by B. Dorval, 51–77. Norwood, New Jersey: Ablex.Google Scholar) has highlighted a number of characteristics of this phenomenon. First of all, topicality is organized and made observable in a patterned way that can be described in terms of ‘moves’. Sacks (1992Sacks, H. 1992Lectures on Conversation. 2 vol., ed. by G. Jefferson. Oxford: Blackwell.Google Scholar, vol. 2 [Winter 1969 Lecture 1]) distinguished two kinds of these. The first, the most usual mechanism in conversation, is the ‘stepwise topical move’. It consists of linking what is being introduced to what has just been talked about. In this kind of move, topical coherence can be maintained through ‘triggered’ or ‘touched-off’ talk (Sacks ibid; Jefferson 1978aJefferson, G. 1978a “What’s in a ‘Nyem’?Sociology 12 (1): 135–139. CrossrefGoogle Scholar). For example, a topic shift may be triggered by association with the content of previous talk or may occur when the course of the conversation brings speakers to remember things they wanted to say. The second type of move, which is referred to as “boundaried movement” (Radford and Tarplee 2000Radford, J. and C. Tarplee 2000 “The Management of Conversational Topic by a Ten Year Old Child with Pragmatic Difficulties.” Clinical Linguistics & Phonetics, 14: 5.Google Scholar), occurs where topic closure is followed by the initiation of another topic. It usually occurs in specific structural locations in conversations (e. g. openings, closings). So, topic shifts are not random events.

Maynard (1980)Maynard, D. W. 1980 “Placement of Topic Choices in Conversation.” Semiotica 30: 263–290. CrossrefGoogle Scholar has shown how topic change is used as a solution to the problem of producing continuous talk, particularly when there is a failure in speaker transitions or in the formal turn-by-turn talk. It has also been shown how topic management relates to the kind of relationship between the participants, i.e. the intimacy and the distance between them (Maynard and Zimmerman 1984Maynard, D. W., and D. H. Zimmerman 1984 “Topical Talk, Ritual and the Social Organization of Relationships.” Social Psychology Quarterly, vol. 47: 301–316. CrossrefGoogle Scholar). For example, acquainted parties often rely on mutually assumed knowledge for changing topics.

Another characteristic of the organization of topics in conversations is that conversants may use events that occur during the interaction or any aspect of a setting or environment as a resource for introducing or changing topics (Adato 1980Adato, A. 1980 “ ‘Occasionality’ as a Constituent Feature of the Known-in-Common Character of Topics”. Human Studies 3: 47–64. CrossrefGoogle Scholar; Maynard and Zimmerman 1984Maynard, D. W., and D. H. Zimmerman 1984 “Topical Talk, Ritual and the Social Organization of Relationships.” Social Psychology Quarterly, vol. 47: 301–316. CrossrefGoogle Scholar; Sacks 1992Sacks, H. 1992Lectures on Conversation. 2 vol., ed. by G. Jefferson. Oxford: Blackwell.Google Scholar; Drew and Chilton 2000Drew, P., and K. Chilton 2000 “Calling just to Keep in Touch: Regular and Habitualised Telephone Calls as an Environment for Small Talk.” In Small talk, ed. by J. Coupland, 137–162. Essex, UK: Longman Harlow.Google Scholar). Maynard and Zimmerman (1984)Maynard, D. W., and D. H. Zimmerman 1984 “Topical Talk, Ritual and the Social Organization of Relationships.” Social Psychology Quarterly, vol. 47: 301–316. CrossrefGoogle Scholar refer to this practice as doing ‘setting talk’, which is defined as “a topical form available to parties by virtue of co-presence and co-access to events and objects in the participant’s environment” (p. 304). According to Adato (1980)Adato, A. 1980 “ ‘Occasionality’ as a Constituent Feature of the Known-in-Common Character of Topics”. Human Studies 3: 47–64. CrossrefGoogle Scholar, some events have more the propensity to give rise to topics than others. These events are typically expected in the sense that they are ‘typically occasioned’ (e. g. the occasion of talking in a cafeteria while eating, events related to the activity of eating are typically expected). ‘Occasionality’ appears then as a constituent feature of topics. Analyzing conversations between acquainted and unacquainted participants, Maynard and Zimmerman (1984)Maynard, D. W., and D. H. Zimmerman 1984 “Topical Talk, Ritual and the Social Organization of Relationships.” Social Psychology Quarterly, vol. 47: 301–316. CrossrefGoogle Scholar observed a relationship between the degree of intimacy between them and setting talk. For example, when participants are not acquainted, they regularly refer to the setting to initiate topical talk. By using this procedure, unacquainted participants make then visible and achieve their relationship by virtue of the fact that it exhibits a ‘distance’.

Drawing on this research and considering topic as what interaction is about (Maynard 1980Maynard, D. W. 1980 “Placement of Topic Choices in Conversation.” Semiotica 30: 263–290. CrossrefGoogle Scholar) we examine the properties of setting talk in video calls: the spontaneous use of environmental features as conversational topics through noticings and the practices of introducing topics by deliberately showing objects or an environment (showings). We analyze the particular place of these practices in the topical and sequential structure of the conversation, their role in maintaining the participation frame through time as well as in accomplishing close relationships between (geographically) distant family members. Following Maynard and Zimmerman (1984)Maynard, D. W., and D. H. Zimmerman 1984 “Topical Talk, Ritual and the Social Organization of Relationships.” Social Psychology Quarterly, vol. 47: 301–316. CrossrefGoogle Scholar, we consider relationship “as something that is subject to ongoing, step-by-step management within talk between persons (…)” (Maynard and Zimmerman 1984Maynard, D. W., and D. H. Zimmerman 1984 “Topical Talk, Ritual and the Social Organization of Relationships.” Social Psychology Quarterly, vol. 47: 301–316. CrossrefGoogle Scholar, 302). From this standpoint, the kind of conversational subjects talked about as well as the ways people introduce and develop them, the ways they comment on the other’s physical appearance, local environment, ongoing events or develop ‘unsafe talk’ (Coupland and Jaworski 2003Coupland, J., and A. Jaworski 2003 “Transgression and Intimacy in Reconnaitre Talk Narratives.” Research on Language and Social interaction 36: 85–106. CrossrefGoogle Scholar, 86) reflect on the kind of social relationship, the common history and shared knowledge between them and play a part in “achiev[ing] new intimacy” (ibid.). At the same time, however, topic introduction also grounds on the visual properties of the communication technology that allows a certain access to the distant environment and the emergence of a certain kind of shared visual frame. By describing the practical actions that enroll audio-visual technology in family and domestic settings and interweave technological and social dimensions (e.g. intimacy or privacy), we seek to understand the link between interaction, relationship and a particular kind of technology.

The data for this paper come from a video-ethnographic study of uses of video calling systems in family and personal life. It was conducted in 2010 in Paris and the surrounding area. Five participants were asked to video record video communications in their homes during a week (twelve hours of footage were collected corresponding to forty-six different sessions). Two participants used Skype, the others used Windows live messenger. The interactions involved parents, siblings and children, different family members and friends; they are originally in French (with some parts in German for one family). We also collected broader ethnographic data on the families as we visited them at home twice and conducted interviews. The analytical treatment of collected data consisted in a close, step-by-step, sequential analysis of the interactions.

3.Showings as visual turn taking in storytelling between relatives

In this section, we examine how the constitution of a common focus of visual attention by showing objects or parts of the environment contributes to the emergence of a common participation frame and its maintaining through time. Family video interactions are a relatively new investigation field. The existing research highlights important aspects of showing practices in family video interaction, for example the socialization of children to video technology through ‘show-and-narrate’ activities (Sunakawa 2012Sunakawa, C. 2012 “Japanese Family via Webcam: An Ethnographic Study of Cross-Spatial Interactions.” In Lecture Notes, in Computer Science, vol. 7258, ed. by M. Okumura, D. Bekki, and K. Satoh, 264–276. Berlin-Heidelberg: Springer-Verlag.Google Scholar) or the normative regulation of camera moves and the interlacement of video-in-interaction with talk-in-interaction (Licoppe and Morel 2014Licoppe, C., and J. Morel 2014 “Mundane Video Directors in Interaction. Showing One’s Environment in Skype and Mobile Video Calls.” In M. Broth, E. Laurier, and L. Mondada (eds.), Studies of Video Practices, Video at Work, 135–160. London: Routledge.Google Scholar). But showing practices also appear as a crucial resource for introducing, developing and changing topics and thus are highly consequential for the sequential organization of family video conversations.

In our data, showing practices are omnipresent and extended pieces of interaction rely on them, as in the two sessions examined below between a husband (Daniel) who is staying temporarily in the south of France for work calling his wife (Andrea) who was on summer holiday with their two children (Tom and Carmen) at her parents’ home in Germany. The second one (Excerpt 4) takes place three days after the first one (Excerpts 13). The video calls were recorded by Daniel so the recordings show what appeared on his screen, Daniel himself is visible on the image control.

3.1Showing an environment

The following recording started just after the opening of the communication (cf. Excerpt 1; Daniel is using a laptop with a camera whereas Andrea is connected on a PC). When Daniel’s head appears the children smile at him while moving closer to the screen,33.In a study based on interviews Kirk, Cao and Sellen (2010)Kirk, D., A. Sellen, and X. Cao 2010 “Home Video Communication: Mediating Closeness.” Proceedings of CSCW: ACM Press: pp. 135–144.Google Scholar argue that seeing and recognizing relatives and friends on the video screen achieves affective and intimate dimensions of mediated relations. the mother tries to make the little boy say “papa” (1). This opening greeting sequence is interweaved from the outset with the first topic introduction as Daniel simultaneously starts moving his laptop, thereby producing a panning shot of his environment (the hotel where he is staying and a mountain landscape, visible on the control image) (2) as if he was using a camera stabilizer. These “showings” act as a visual ‘story preface’ (Sacks 1992Sacks, H. 1992Lectures on Conversation. 2 vol., ed. by G. Jefferson. Oxford: Blackwell.Google Scholar, vol. 2 [Spring 1970, Lecture 2]) projecting a story to come. In the next turn Andrea aligns herself to the ‘topic’ (the environment shown by Daniel) and to the storytelling by producing an assessment: “Daniel “it’s rotten of you”” (3). The assessment is about the act of showing an attractive place treated as teasing and as known-in-common (the place is not named). Note that Daniel remains silent, he does not comment the images and relies on an assumed mutual knowledge of his location. This visually introduced environment becomes the first topic and may be seen as one of the reasons-for-the call. Following Sacks, we may typically expect a development of the story itself by the storyteller in the next turn (4), but instead Daniel produces a postponed silent greeting waving his hand in response to turn (1), which sparks off a return greeting from his daughter in (5). From the outset of this fragment, the powerful consequences of visual frames for the organization of the multiparty family video conversation at such crucial points as opening greetings and first topic introduction can be observed. Distortions or differences compared to openings and storytelling in other contexts (co-presence and telephone) are also noticeably related to the specific use of visual resources – the response greetings as well as the third turn of storytelling developing the initial topic may be postponed.

Excerpt 1.(Session 1) initial visual topic introduction (story preface) (1–17)44.See appendix for transcription conventions.

1. Andrea

Xx papa Tom …*(ich) rorororo papa ((se penche vers Tom))

Xx papa Tom …*(ich) rorororo papa ((leans toward Tom))

ex1.svg
2. Daniel             *((starts to move his laptop around and shows mountain landscape))
ex2.svg
3. Andrea

Oh:::: *DANIEL:: t’es vache oh je te vois très bien hein

(1)

Oh::: *Daniel it’s rotten of you I can see you very well right

(1)

ex3.svg
4. Daniel

    *((Fait coucou avec sa main droite))->

    *((waves with his right hand))->

5. Carmen

((Fait coucou avec sa main droite, sourit, montre sa langue))

((waves, smiles, shows her tongue))

ex4.svg
6. Andrea

T’es avec ton ordinateur ou avec [ta tablette/

You are with your laptop or your [tablet/

7. Daniel

                        [(Ya) avec l’ordinateur

                        [(ya) with the laptop

8. Andrea

Ah t’es avec l’ordinateur je veux te dire tu vas faire du skype *tu vas c’est bien ouais ((rire)) mais bon t’auras pas le temps de te reposer dessus non/

Ah you are using your laptop I can tell you you will use skype *you will it’s good ((laughs)) but you will not have time to relax on them will you

ex5.svg
9. Daniel

            *(Daniel makes a static shot of the deckchairs then shows the hotel in which he is staying)

ex6.svg
10. Tom

*((Geste de pointage vers l’écran))

*((points at the screen))

11. Daniel

Non=

No=

12. Andrea =Xx
13. Andrea

((Rire)) ça va/

(1)

((laughs)) how are you/

(1)

Daniel’s face is visible
14. Daniel

*Coucou Tom

*((secoue sa main gauche)) (1)

*Hello Tom

*((waves with his left hand))

(1)

15. Andrea

Xx Papa

Xx daddy

16. Tom

Rororo

(gets closer to the screen)

ex7.svg
17. Andrea

Rororo ((en grimaçant))

(2)

oh Tom je peux te dire il est difficile en ce moment il veut que marcher hein […]

(2)

Rororo ((making a funny face))

(2)

oh Tom I can tell you he is difficult at the moment he only wants to walk right […]

(2)

Daniel goes on showing the environment

Instead of immediately following the ratification of the story preface by the recipient (3), this first topic development appears several turns later, in turn 9: Daniel produces a static shot of a fragment of his environment, namely the deckchair area of the hotel where he is staying. With regard to sequential organization, the moving of the laptop camera appears to overlap Andrea’s turn in line 8. She interrupts her talk and topicalizes what she sees in the shot (“you will not have time to relax on them will you/”) the deictic “them” referring to the deckchairs. By doing so, Andrea adjusts her utterance to the image and exhibits her understanding of Daniel’s action, but also more generally of his working background and work load. The production of humor here relies on the joint use of visual interactional resources (the deckchairs shot) and knowledge of Daniel’s working background at that moment. Following Maynard and Zimmerman’s analysis of the interactional display of close or distant social relationships, we can notice here that mutual knowledge and intimate relationship between husband and wife are important resource for topic introduction and management: the participants rely on these shared evidences “to provide sense and make sense in topical introductions” (Maynard and Zimmerman 1984Maynard, D. W., and D. H. Zimmerman 1984 “Topical Talk, Ritual and the Social Organization of Relationships.” Social Psychology Quarterly, vol. 47: 301–316. CrossrefGoogle Scholar, 305) and also to make jokes.

In line 13, Andrea uses a typical topic initial elicitor “how are you/”, attempting to invite Daniel in the subsequent turn to provide a report of events which are newsworthy and in some way to cut off setting talk oriented by camera moves. But this invitation is not successful: Daniel does not take it up. Instead he produces a greeting explicitly oriented to Tom (14). Andrea does not treat the absence of a response as a problem nor does she repeat her question. It is interesting to note the sequential placement of the greeting performed by Daniel; it occurs just after an occasioned event: Tom’s act of pointing. Andrea spontaneously turns the addressee of the greeting (“Tom”) into a topic and opens a new line of talk (from 16–17 onward, not reproduced here) about him, the weather and a projected activity (going to the swimming pool because of the heat). She performs a topic change by producing a series of news announcements about these items which take the form of deliveries of news’ (Maynard & Zimmerman 1984Maynard, D. W., and D. H. Zimmerman 1984 “Topical Talk, Ritual and the Social Organization of Relationships.” Social Psychology Quarterly, vol. 47: 301–316. CrossrefGoogle Scholar).

News announcements are a typical device used in conversation for initiating topical talk, the development of which requires that the second speaker topicalizes the news in the next turn by providing the sequential opportunity for its elaboration (Button & Casey 1984Button, G., and N. Casey 1984 “Generating Topic: The Use of Topic Initial Elicitors.” In Structures of Social Action. Studies in Conversation Analysis, ed. by J. M. Atkinson, and J. Heritage, 165–190. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar). In the fragment, Daniel does not make use of this opportunity; he does not produce any utterance in response to the news reported by Andrea. He continues to move the laptop while Andrea is delivering news and does not seem to be paying much attention to what she is saying. His attention seems totally devoted to showing the environment.

In Excerpt 2, we can observe the second move of the visual storytelling in progress from the beginning: after the story preface (Excerpt 1 – 2) and the topicalization of a first fragment of the environment (the deckchairs, Excerpt 1 – 8, 9), Daniel puts on the screen – and thereby on the conversational agenda – a new element, a swimming pool, that gives rise to a stretch of topical talk (Excerpt 2 – 27–33).

Excerpt 2.(Session 1) focusing on a particular piece of the environment: swimming pool (26–39)

26. Andrea

Ah okay c’est bien ça ouais parce que nous je peux *te dire qu’on crève de chaud dans la xx mais bon on (…) [c’est quand même xxx=

Ah okay it is good yes because here I can tell

*you we are dying of heat in the xx but right we (…)     [it is still xx=

ex8.svg
27. Daniel     *Daniel moves the laptop and shows a swimming pool
28. Daniel

            [Tu la vois la piscine en bas non/

            [you can see the swimming pool down there can’t you/

29. Andrea

Euh ah ba là *derrière/non xx

           *((pointe vers l’écran))

Uh ah ba there on the *other side isn’t it/ no xx

                    *((points at the screen))

30. Daniel

On voit un tout petit *carré là-bas

                *((pointe du doigt vers la piscine))

You can see a small *square over there

                *((points at the swimming pool))

31. Andrea

Oui ah oui mais mais c’est la piscine de d’Avoriaz/ xx

Yes ah yes but but its Avoriaz’s swimming pool/ xx

Daniel orients the laptop towards his face
32. Daniel

Oui oui [on n’a pas de piscine] ici

((geste de pointage vers l’écran en secouant la main))

Yes yes [there is no swimming pool] here ((Points at the screen))

33. Andrea

       [C’est pas la piscine de] xx

       [it’s not the swimming pool of] xx

34. Tom

((Secoue sa main gauche))

(2)

((Waves with his left hand))

(2)

35. Andrea

Sinon ça va chéri/

(5)

Anyway how are you honey/

(5)

Daniel moves the laptop and shows a mountain
36. Andrea

Allô/

Hello/

37. Tom

Xx ((pointe vers l’écran))

Xx ((points at the screen))

Daniel moves the camera towards his face which becomes visible
38. Daniel

Oui oui

(3)

Yes yes

(3)

39. Andrea

Bien

Good

Daniel’s question may have been touched-off or triggered by the prior utterance, as Andrea spoke about going to “the swimming pool” (transcription omitted). This type of topical movement is described by Sacks (1992)Sacks, H. 1992Lectures on Conversation. 2 vol., ed. by G. Jefferson. Oxford: Blackwell.Google Scholar as the ‘most routine thing’ in adult conversations. In line 35, after a long pause, Andrea produces again a topic initial elicitor (Button and Casey 1984Button, G., and N. Casey 1984 “Generating Topic: The Use of Topic Initial Elicitors.” In Structures of Social Action. Studies in Conversation Analysis, ed. by J. M. Atkinson, and J. Heritage, 165–190. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar), as before in line 12 projecting a news delivery sequence. But, this attempt is also unsuccessful. After a second long silence (35), in 36 Andrea produces a summons (Schegloff 1968Schegloff, E. A. 1968 “Sequencing in Conversational Openings.” American Anthropologist 70 (6): 1075–1095. CrossrefGoogle Scholar) typically used in telephone conversations. Daniel remains oriented to the activity of showing by moving his laptop and responds to this summons by producing a minimal token, which is followed by a third pause (38). Interestingly, the examined interaction manifests momentary misalignments between talk-in-interaction and video-in-interaction activities of the participants.

3.2Showing one’s clothing

Andrea then tries to reinstate continuous talk by searching for a topic (Excerpt 3 – 40), but again, she is interrupted by Daniel’s visual topic introduction, this time by showing a feature of his clothing, a shirt from the Tour de France race (41). Again, this visual move overlaps Andrea’s talk, reorients her turn in progress and stands for a new story preface.

Excerpt 3.(Session 1) clothing as a topic (40–46)

40. Andrea

Bien (3) c’est bien chéri *et qu’est-ce que je voulais dire OH LA LA/ et ils ils vont ont donné ça/

(3)

Right (3) good honey *and what I was going to say OH DEAR a and they they gave it to you

(3)

dadada

ex9.svg
41. Daniel

                *((Pose l’ordinateur, recule et montre son dos))

                *((puts his laptop and moves back, shows his back))

42. Andrea

*Tu vas les garder ou tu vas les redonner à la fin/

(3)

*are you going to keep them or you will give them back/ (3)

43. Daniel

*((Se remet face à la caméra et forme le chiffre trois avec sa main droite, paume orientée vers la caméra))

*((rotates, face in front of the camera and shows the number three with his right hand, palm oriented towards the laptop))

44. Andrea

Trois/

(2)

Three/

(2)

45. Daniel

*((Oriente la paume de sa main vers lui))

*((orients the palm of his hand towards him))

46. Andrea

*Vous avez eu trois t-shirts/->

*You have got three t-shirts/->

This procedure of topic initiation can also be seen as a non-verbal news announcement which takes the form of a riddle (like saying “guess what I am wearing”). Andrea treats it as such: she recognizes and topicalizes the “news announced” (the fact that his company gave him clothes) which results in a course of continuous talk, changing the initial orientation of her utterance (40), then continuing the topic (42). Interestingly, this scenic introduction of a new topic or story line relies on a particular technological affordance, the angle of the web camera, which offers quite different interactional opportunities compared to situations of co-presence. As Daniel is positioned fairly close to the camera, only his head is visible for the distant family members, thus enabling him to trigger a surprise by moving away from the lap top and showing his jersey.

In this first video call, the participants seem to follow disjointed conversation lines: while Daniel is oriented to showing, sharing and discussing his immediate environment in a storytelling mode, Andrea basically tries to initiate news talk but finally aligns herself to topics elicited by her husband. We can note the considerable weight of what is shown on the screen compared to what is said for topic management in video-mediated conversation, especially when a participant moves the camera, thereby engaging the co-participant in the unfolding temporality of the movement. Showing the t-shirt and the environment seem to have been planned by Daniel, as well as his prepared scenic entrance in Excerpt 4 (session 2) bellow while activating the video stream and appearing dressed like a racing cyclist.

Excerpt 4.(Session 2)

1. Andrea

ils reviennent quand *là pour le-& (2)

when do they come *back for-& (2)

2. Daniel                     *(puts the video on and appears dressed as racing cyclist, first shows his head, then moves to show jersey)
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3. Andrea

(stops speaking and stares at Daniel, switches from French to German)

&Ach DU Heilige/ Ach Du Heilige Vati/ (…) ruf‘ den mal rein (.) schnell (.) Ich glaub’s ja wohl nicht [ICH glaub’s wohl nicht Ey

& OH MY GOD/ OH MY GOD (turns her head) Dad/ (…) ey call him in (.) quick (.) I can’t believe this

[I can’t believe this (laughs) hey

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4. Daniel

[on est p- on est prêts pour l’interview ou pas là

[we are- we are r- we are ready for the interview aren‘t we/

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Daniel’s physical appearance raises a line of topical talk about the tour de France and racing cyclists that lasts fourteen minutes, until the end of the session, involving Andrea and her father who joins the conversation (see Figure 1). It is important to stress once again the particular property of showing actions in VMC (video-mediated communication): they may be used to take a turn and they can be treated as such. Daniel’s scenic action is treated as an interruption by Andrea: she stops speaking in the middle of a word (1) and stares at Daniel (3), then, after a silent pause, she drops the current topic and takes up the new topic – the racing cyclist appearance (3). Andrea marks the topic change by a language switch from French to German to draw the attention of her father and thus to enlarge the participation framework. Here again, the first topic is not only introduced in a scenic way, its development is also oriented and sustained by visual actions: first only Daniel’s head is visible, then he moves to show his jersey and to sustain comments on it (3, 4).

Figure 1.

Visual topic development. Andrea’s father reacting to Daniel’s showings that appear on the control image (bottom left).

Figure 1.

Figure 1 shows the use of the same visual method to sustain talk by producing views on different details in the following interaction: the logo of the team “Milram” (image a), the number of one of the cyclists, i.e. 144 (image (b), and then a hole in the back of the jersey (image c). The conversation takes the form of a common inspection of the object presented by Daniel: Andrea and her father look closely at the screen and comment on what they see. Daniel’s utterances clarify what is shown on the screen and give further information. The topic development through time in this multi-party interaction lies on the visual materials which Daniel successively makes available to the co-participants.

3.3Summary

Visual topic introduction and management through showings in the family video calls we have examined seems to have a typical structure of storytelling, as described by Sacks (1992Sacks, H. 1992Lectures on Conversation. 2 vol., ed. by G. Jefferson. Oxford: Blackwell.Google Scholar, vol. 2 [Spring 1970, Lectures 2, 3, 4]) and summarized by Jefferson (1978b 1978b “Sequential Aspects of Storytelling in Conversation.” In Studies in the Organization of Conversational Interaction, ed. by J. N. Schenkein, 213–248. New York: Academic Press.Google Scholar, 219):

For example, storytelling can involve a story preface with which a teller projects a forthcoming story, a next turn in which a co-participant aligns himself as a story recipient, a next in which a teller produces the story, and a next in which story recipient talks by reference to the story. Further, the story preface can have consequences for the story reception, and thus a rather extended series of turns at talk can be seen as a coherent conversational unit.

Following on Sack’s observations on storytelling organization, Jefferson showed that stories are both ‘locally occasioned’ from turn-by-turn talk and ‘sequentially implicative’ for it (Jefferson 1978b 1978b “Sequential Aspects of Storytelling in Conversation.” In Studies in the Organization of Conversational Interaction, ed. by J. N. Schenkein, 213–248. New York: Academic Press.Google Scholar, 220).

Although Sacks and Jefferson are concerned with verbal actions, visual storytelling analyzed here is consistent with the structure and features they describe. In the examined materials it is noticeable that most of the time the storyteller is silent: while visually introducing a topic by displaying an image on the screen and also in the following turns while guiding and sustaining the development of the topic by successive camera moves. Showing, here, takes the place of saying or describing, so that we can speak of visual turn taking anchored in the laptop camera’s affordances.

Two kinds of visual story prefaces are found in our data: showing an environment (Excerpt 1 – landscape) and showing a detail of one’s own physical appearance, in this case a piece of clothing (Excerpts 3 and 4). Visual topic management shows a recurring form of organization in two steps: first, a preface or general introduction of a topic by showing something and second, a collaborative elaboration of the ‘story’ supported by subsequent showings (e.g. deckchairs and swimming pool in session 1 as details of the environment under inspection; the logo, the number and the hole as significant details of the jersey in session 2).

Jefferson also stresses the ‘segmental structure’ of storytelling, i.e. the story is not a block of talk but is constructed by segments that alternate turns of storyteller and story-listeners (ibid, 245). This aspect is particularly interesting regarding the question of the maintaining of a shared participation frame through time in video mediated spaces. Here, the segmental structure of storytelling may be grounded on visual resources constituted as a common focus of attention of multiparty interactions and developed by progressively introducing new shots treated as topically coherent with what precedes. In comparison to face-to-face situations, ‘setting talk’ in video conversation is not simply ‘small talk’ (Coupland 2000Coupland, J. (ed.) 2000Small talk. Essex, UK: Longman Harlow.Google Scholar) about a shared environment as participants have a restricted and asymmetrical visual access to each other’s locations. This is why setting talk can take the form of storytelling – it is like a guided tour of the storyteller’s location that can be unfamiliar to his partners. The storyteller chooses the details he wants to show and interact upon as well as their temporal order. Showing practices do not only structure the sequential and topical organization of family video conversation, but are also involved in the accomplishment of intimacy and closeness: the type of relationship between participants is highly consequential on what is shown, especially concerning person’s body and local environment, and how is it shown. Moreover, shared history and mutual knowledge that characterize close social relationships are important resources participants rely upon to make sense of what they see on the screen (see also Sunakawa 2012Sunakawa, C. 2012 “Japanese Family via Webcam: An Ethnographic Study of Cross-Spatial Interactions.” In Lecture Notes, in Computer Science, vol. 7258, ed. by M. Okumura, D. Bekki, and K. Satoh, 264–276. Berlin-Heidelberg: Springer-Verlag.Google Scholar, 274).

4.Noticings as intimacy achieving practices

Sacks (1992Sacks, H. 1992Lectures on Conversation. 2 vol., ed. by G. Jefferson. Oxford: Blackwell.Google Scholar, 87) observed that participants in face-to-face conversations tend to produce a particular kind of communicative action, namely ‘environmental noticings’, which have the particularity of changing the topic of the current conversation. These noticings have several characteristics. First, they are about the environment (e.g. a noise or an object) or about attributes participants have or possess (e.g. their physical appearance, “things” they brought with them like clothing). Possession or ownership is conversationally consequential, in the sense that if a participant makes a remark about an attribute another participant has, it is very likely that the ‘owner’ of the attribute will talk next. Second, noticings can be interruptive in the sense that they can cut into someone else’s talk; but whether they are specifically interruptive is an open question. Third, they are not related to previous talk and may give rise to a new line of topical talk as in the following example given by Sacks (1992)Sacks, H. 1992Lectures on Conversation. 2 vol., ed. by G. Jefferson. Oxford: Blackwell.Google Scholar, in which a participant spontaneously makes a noticing about the current speaker’s physical appearance (2):

1 Roger:

…of the desk that ‘e li//likes

2 Al:

Hey you have a hole in your shoe

3 Roger:

heh Do(hh)n’tell me. hhh heh

4 Al:

This place cos:s too much money. Can’ afford buy shoes. (adapted from Sacks 1992Sacks, H. 1992Lectures on Conversation. 2 vol., ed. by G. Jefferson. Oxford: Blackwell.Google Scholar: 87)

This example shows that a participant’s attributes are “possible makings of a conversation” (Sacks 1992Sacks, H. 1992Lectures on Conversation. 2 vol., ed. by G. Jefferson. Oxford: Blackwell.Google Scholar, 92). Another important feature of this kind of noticing is that they cannot simply occur anywhere in the conversation. For example, the placement of noticings about physical features of persons is more likely to be placed after the talk of the person whose feature is noticed.

Noticings have also been observed in telephone conversations. Drew and Chilton (2000)Drew, P., and K. Chilton 2000 “Calling just to Keep in Touch: Regular and Habitualised Telephone Calls as an Environment for Small Talk.” In Small talk, ed. by J. Coupland, 137–162. Essex, UK: Longman Harlow.Google Scholar examined instances of habitualized, ‘keeping in touch’ family phone calls in which participants spontaneously produce noticings about something in their immediate environment (e.g. an object, an event or the weather), particularly in the opening sequences of calls. The noticings analyzed by Drew and Chilton, which often appear before the completion of the ‘how are you’ sequence, are sometimes topicalized and occasion episodes of ‘small talk’ (e.g. Coupland 2000Coupland, J. (ed.) 2000Small talk. Essex, UK: Longman Harlow.Google Scholar), i.e. talk which is about matters which do not ordinarily constitute a reason for calling (e.g. members’ current activities, the weather, what is in flower in the garden, what they have been eating). In other words, this kind of noticings constitutes a feature of a particular type of family phone calls, those that are not made to talk about a specific purpose, but only for keeping in touch, i.e. for maintaining relationships. However, it should be noted that, unlike face-to-face interaction, in telephone conversations the “objects” of these noticings are not shared in the sense that they are not visible to the distant participant.

So noticings seem to be a common feature of ordinary conversations used to change or to introduce topics. In our data of video calls, we observed different kinds of noticings which play the same role and give rise to more or less short lines of topical talk. Let us examine some examples of family video calls in which noticings about the physical appearance and the activity of children are spontaneously produced. These examples are extracted from conversations between two sisters: Anna, who lives in the outskirts of Paris, and Julie, who lives in the south of France.

4.1Noticings about physical appearance

In the first example, Anna and Julie are talking about Halloween, and more precisely about how Anna made a Halloween pumpkin. Carla, Julie’s baby, is also present.

Excerpt 1.

1. Julie

*Tu as RACLE et tout/

*((secoue sa main gauche))

*You CLEANED out the inside and all

*((shakes her left hand))

2. Anna

Oui/

Yes/

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