Dear Ms. Smartphone: My colleague and I were on a conference call together, but she took the meeting from home on her computer, while I joined in from my home, and over my phone. When it was over and we compared notes, she had lots of observations and remembered interesting points that were relevant for our company. I could barely recall any. Was it me, or was it that I used my phone to connect and screen size does matter? Neal, San Francisco
Dear Neal: Your question is reminiscent of that old Marshall McLuhan expression that “the medium is the message.” At one time everyone used desktop computers for meetings, but now they have moved on to smaller screens and laptops. Is it the screen size that makes a difference or what McLuhan called hot and cold media? We will never know as McLuhan died before the invention of smartphones.
Chances are if you took the call on your phone, you were also wearing headphones and walking around. Mobile phones are by definition ‘mobile,’ but when we move about, we rely on our operating faculties, many of them at a sub-conscious level, to stay upright and not trip over things. We are not aware of our divided attention, since it takes place at an automatic level. As this column often notes, mobility and smartphones don’t play well together in cars or on foot. So, the mobility factor might explain why the conference call had more depth for your colleague.
Small IS NOT BETTER
Another factor could be that you missed detail on the smaller screen of the phone. Imagine that you streamed the play Hamilton to your phone. Yes, you would see if Aaron Burr was on center stage and perhaps get his lyrics, but you probably would not be able to register Thomas Jefferson and the mob moving about in the background. When you use a small screen to conference, you might hear the speakers, but miss the sidelines.
Some confirmation comes from a recent University of Michigan/Texas A&M study. The researchers found that participants reading news on their phone screens were “less attentive and activated” by what they saw. Now, that may not be what happened in your online meeting, but you get the drift.
Big Conventions Too!
There are also conventions built into how we use the phone, as well as how we interact with the computer. When we use phones, it’s not unusual to scroll and open a new screen when we are interrupted by the ping of an incoming text message. Workers between ages 25 and 34 spend 6.4 hours a day checking their email, and you might have been distracted out of sheer habit.
Finally, I can’t leave the topic without suggesting that you and your colleague might have begun the meeting with different frames of mind. She may have begun with high expectations, and that led her use the laptop, and perhaps (we don’t know) take notes on a piece of paper or alt screen. You may have approached the conference with other priorities, and that led you to pre-select the phone. We like to think that the medium (the technology) is making the choices for us, but that’s not always the full picture, pun intended.