The living room effect: virtual togetherness

four person standing on cliff in front of sun

<< Dead? What do you mean dead? >>

Herbert was no more. A phone call broke the news, on a cold Sunday morning.

Herbert and I went to high school together. We used to ride our bikes along the shoreline, and we spent long afternoons together at the arcades. After graduation, we drifted off. I left my hometown, but we kept in touch, mainly on Facebook. We often sent memes to each other on Messenger.

I could not believe it. I had spoken to him just a few days before, or was it the previous week?

I picked up my phone and went through the chats. Our last message was 17 months old.

He didn’t even know I had a son. I forgot to tell him.

There are friends I can spend time with exploring a new city, hiking the mountains, or diving in the sea, or just sitting in the same room in silence for eight hours staring at our laptops. And for us, the level of intimacy is the same, regardless of which activity we chose for the day.

I call it “the living room effect”. As long as we have proximity, we are together.

In the most recent years, due to the permanent connected status, the same feeling extended from the physical to the virtual space; my list of friends started to give me that living room effect as well. But this time, the gaps are wider. I don’t actually know where my friends are, or what they are really doing. My brain fills those gaps, taking information from the edges, those chat statuses, and applying it to the less tangible parts of our relationships.

In neuroscience, there is an image called the Craik-O’Brien-Cornsweet illusion. It is a rectangular field of gray divided in half by a shaded middle border. The area to the left of the border appears brighter than that to the right. In reality, the brighter and darker regions exist only at the edge—the surrounding areas to the left and the right are the exact same brightness. The illusion causes the brain to apply the brightness and darkness it sees at the border to the left and right areas.

Craik-O’Brien-Cornsweet illusion – The areas to the left and the right are the exact same brightness.

The Cornsweet illusion is an example of edge induction—taking information from the edge of an object and applying it to the rest of the object. It demonstrates that much of what you perceive is actually a construction in your brain, and is not accurate.

Just like our brain falls for the Craik-O’Brien-Cornsweet illusion, I fall for the living room effect when it comes to my friends: it feels like people are in my same room just because I see them logged in the chats.

They show online, and I feel they are close to me. Our conversations never end. We don’t feel the gaps; we exchange a continuous stream of messages,  the same way we don’t feel the distance between our bodies. I can text from an airport in southeast Asia while they are shopping at CVS in Redondo Beach. Not even time zones matter anymore.

<< This is ridiculous, >> she said.

My mother, raised in the 60s, doesn’t get it. 

<< How can it be the same? How reading a message on a tiny screen is the same as touching skin, hearing voices, and laughing together? >>

She needs to listen to my voice to know I’m doing well, so we talk on the phone. We exchange messages, but with her, it’s not the same. She is from a generation that requires more bandwidth in their relationships.

Does that mean that older generations are less inclined to fill the gaps in their perceptions when emotions are involved? Quite the opposite.

If my mother finds it impossible to feel the living room effect via text messages, people in her generation are inclined to other types of virtual togetherness.

In 2013, researchers at the University of Auckland in New Zealand discovered that a robot companion could benefit senior adults similar to that of a living animal.

They concluded that a robot companion had benefits for older people in nursing home care and it was a positive addition to this environment. The robotic pet may address some of the unmet needs of older people that a resident animal may not, particularly relating to loneliness.

Since Herbert passed, I started reflecting more on avoiding the dark side of the living room effect. Relational laziness can keep us apart even if we feel close to each other. For this reason, I resumed a few chats buried in my apps, and I now call people on the phone more often.

I can’t beat the living room effect, but I can refurbish the living room so the chairs face one another and make it easier to have more frequent conversations.


This essay is the third assignment of Write of Passage, a cohort-based online writing course I’m attending.
I want to thank a few people who helped me edit my initial draft and provided valuable feedback during the creative process: Fei-Ling Tseng, Florian MaganzaLetizia BarbiPaolo Belcastro, Stephen Samuel.

Published by Luca Sartoni

I lead a team of engineers across three continents at Automattic. I love hiking, photography, and 3D printers.

One thought on “The living room effect: virtual togetherness

  1. That was pretty powerful. My condolences on the loss of your friend. I’m going to be thinking on this post for a while, and am pretty sure some changes will be made in my world, too. Thanks for writing and sharing.

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