Delving into the Digital Campus: The Many Faces of Vulnerability

By Ayaan Hagar, Design Researcher & Project Team Lead  

Ayaan Hagar

This blog post is part of Delving into the Digital Campus, a four-part series in collaboration with the Digital Community & Connectedness Project, aimed at understanding how students find and make connections in digital spaces. Each post is a written reflection from our Design Researchers, sharing how the insights from their project has resonated with them in their own lived experiences. 

What does it mean to connect in an age where we’re constantly connected? 

It’s a question that’s been on my mind since the start of the pandemic; with a parent working on the frontlines, I heard accounts of the virus’ impact that didn’t give me much hope for returning to campus anytime soon. I had always had a bit of hard time finding my place on campus until I switched my program last year and became a part of a tight-knit, cohort of students. It wasn’t until the pandemic hit that I realized how much of that connection was forged over months of FaceTime, group trips to Kensington Market, shared triumphs and troubles over coffee, and daily lunches in the student lounge. With my younger brother entering university in the fall, I wondered what his experience and so many other new students would look like. 

The Power of a Face  

In the era of Zoom university, it can feel like we’re more connected with each other than ever before. Over the past few months, we’ve spent time speaking with students, both through our Stories from a Distance initiative and the Digital Community & Connectedness Project, and we’ve gained an understanding of what it means to some students to truly connect online. One student in particular shared a story about a group project teammate that mirrored an experience I’ve had several times over the past year: 

A computer with four icons of individuals on the screen in a zoom meeting.

“…And there’s this one person who would never turn their camera on. And then it was her birthday last week. So she turned on her camera. And it was such a weird moment, because I realized I never saw her. I don’t know anything about her. I don’t think I ever asked her how she was, because she was always this person. She was just a voice, she never had her camera on. And it’s it just makes you realize just how important in person communication is or even just like being able to see who you’re talking to. Because otherwise, I guess you just see them as a voice. You don’t really get to meet someone, if you can’t see them. At least that’s been my experience so far.” 

What struck me about this quote was that I could see myself both as the speaker, but also as the person who didn’t turn the camera on.  

Through our conversations, we heard from students on what it means to show vulnerability online and how vulnerability impacted their sense of belonging and connectedness. And for many, the small act of turning on their camera had big results. Students mentioned feeling more connected with the person on the other side of their screen when they shared parts of themselves and saw that being reciprocated. We coined this phenomenon as “The Power of a Face”. The idea is that by showing the face and reciprocating vulnerability, one has the power to change the dynamic of the conversation. But what happens when the person on the other side reciprocates in a way that’s unfamiliar to us?  

Finding Comfort in Varying Communicative Styles 

A big learning moment for our team came in conversations with other groups at UofT who pushed back on this idea. The reality is that vulnerability takes on different forms for different people; for instance, a student struggling with social anxiety might lean into their vulnerability by participating in the chat or turning on their mic. While many students appreciate the convenience and accessibility of meeting online, many also struggle with the trade-offs that come with this new normal. Turning on the camera, for many, can be nerve-wracking and require a leap of faith; to turn on your camera is not just showing others your face but inviting others into your personal space. What our research failed to address was that there are a number of intermediate steps towards vulnerability, each of them valid even if we can’t recognize them. 

An ear with a conversation bubble, illustrating active listening.

As a student researcher, I’ve learned that empathy is a powerful tool that I can use to understand the experiences of my fellow students. And while I can locate many times where I felt awkward from the lack of participation by acquaintances or classmates in meetings or class breakout rooms, I could also locate many times where I felt guilty that I didn’t feel comfortable sharing myself. Thinking back to my own experiences, I wonder if there were moments where I could have been more patient with the person on the other side of the screen for not participating/reciprocating in the same way I was. And in realizing this, I wonder if I can extend that patience towards myself as well. 

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