Interactions and Screens in Research and Education

Digital bugs and interactional failures

Digital bugs and interactional failures in the service of a collective intelligence

Samira Ibnelkaïd

Caroline Vincent

Version française > Samira Ibnelkaïd, Caroline Vincent, « Digital bugs and interactional failures in the service of a collective intelligence », Interactions and Screens in Research and Education (enhanced edition), Les Ateliers de [sens public], Montreal, 2023, isbn:978-2-924925-25-6,
version:0, 11/15/2023
Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International (CC BY-SA 4.0)

The emergence of communication networks and interfaces has brought about a reconfiguration of individuals’ modes of presence and modalities of interaction. Onscreen interactional experiences have led to the creation of new linguistic resources and of a renewed relationship to space and time, as well as to others and to oneself.

Flow of communication

The search for flows of communication and information transfer that are as instantaneous as possible is and always has been central to social relations. This “human desire for ubiquity” is not recent (Gras 1999). In the entire history of humanity, a sender has never been able to send a message so fast to an absent addressee (Jakobson 1960). The speed of these flows of communication calls into question the very notions of absence and presence and, at the same time, the representation of what is “absent” by artefacts and particular semiotics. The corporeal, relational, affective and aesthetic existence of humans finds itself henceforth involved in complex socio-technical systems of interaction (Levy 2013, 17).

The reticular and diffracted aspect of these new forms of interaction entails the development of a new technobodily literacy. Individuals need to adapt to the conversational failures inherent to all social interaction (Kerbrat-Orecchioni 1990 ; Traverso 1999 ; Béal 2010) and the “technical bugs intrinsic to digital technologies” (Vial 2012). The versatility of digital matter (Vial 2012) and the fragility of social interaction (Kerbrat-Orecchioni 1996) show how much communication is co-constructed and based on cooperation. During their onscreen experience, individuals need to collaborate in order to initiate, maintain, preserve and repair the flow of communication, in particular, during critical episodes that are inevitable in polylogal, polyartefacted interactions.

This raises the question of the methods used by interactants to deal with these critical episodes. How does the group identify and overcome digital bugs and interactional failures during onscreen interactions, and how does it enacts a collective intelligence?

Research questions

More specific interrogations follow from this problematic. To what extent is it possible to make individuals’ onscreen activities accountable? Which key properties of the co-construction of interaction stand out during critical episodes? Which interactional rules are the most problematic or the most frequently transgressed in digital interaction? Finally, what recommendations emerge from the practice and subjective experience of participants?

Our study will start with an ethological description of a critical episode in which we observe the difficulties participants encounter in trying to make their activities accountable and the ethnomethods they develop to overcome these difficulties. This description will be accompanied by a transdisciplinary synthesis of the results of the three main axis of our research: the study of attention from a communicational point of view, that of corporeality in a phenomenological approach, and that of politeness from an interactionist perspective. Finally, these new theoretical-analytical findings will be related to the discursive analysis of the final assessment questionnaires completed by participants, in particular, on the key points of their experience and their recommendations.

Ethological investigation

This multidimensional approach of onscreen presenceCf. the chapter “Theoretical and methodological framework for visual reflexive ethology”.↩︎ allows us to understand in a transdisciplinary manner the ecology of the unique experience that the hybrid polyartefacted research seminar constitutes.

Failures and bugs: Incidents inherent to (onscreen) communication

Verbal interactions and their failures

Interactional felicity

During their interactions, individuals are constantly trying to understand their interlocutor and to make themselves understood by them. Participants employ a variety of multimodal and multisemiotic resources to maintain this intelligibility.

Interactional synchrony

Postural-facial-gestural positioning seeks to facilitate interactional synchrony including self-synchrony – “on the speaker’s side, the synergy of speech events and of the movements of various corporeal segments” (Condon and Ogston 1966, 338) – and hetero-synchrony: “on the interlocutor’s side, the synergy of segmentary synchronous activities of speech events produced by their partner-interlocutor” (Condon and Ogston 1966, 338).

Interactional felicity thus consists in the speaker being able to express a thought, to make it understood or gain approbation for it, to share an opinion, etc. (Cosnier 1996). This felicity is determined by the answers to the speaker’s four questions: Do you hear me? Are you listening to me? Do you understand me? What do you think about it? (Cosnier 1996).

Affective framing

Responding to these questions requires the interlocutor to provide retroactive verbal or kinetic cues. Moreover, the last question implies affective framing that for speakers consists of dealing with their emotions and the expression of their real or apparent feelings, as well as perceiving those of their interlocutors.

Interactive bricolage

But this affective framing does not come into being without incidents. The constant search for interactional felicity regularly entails adjustments inasmuch as communication necessarily involves malfunctions. The interactionist approach defines an interactional malfunction as “a linguistic phenomenon that transgresses a rule of the ideal functioning of interaction” (Sandré 2009, 69). These malfunctions are interactional failures (Kerbrat-Orecchioni 1990 ; Traverso 1999).

Interactional failures

Such failures (overlaps, interruptions, misunderstandings, inconsistencies, stammering, etc.) occur so frequently in interactions because

expressing themselves ... urgently and in an improvised manner, speakers do not always manage to master the entire set of cognitive operations required to produce coherent speech as well as they could (Kerbrat-Orecchioni 1996, 24).

And these failures occur all the more frequently inasmuch as the presence of the interlocutor and their multimodal reactions influence the locutor, who thus modifies their utterance and enunciation: notably, by interrupting themself, starting over, etc. (Kerbrat-Orecchioni 2001). Observing interactional failures is especially useful for uncovering the underlying ethos and its influence on how the conversation unfolds (Béal 2010, 333).

These conversational incidents reveal the processes through which interactants engage in a cooperative process that seeks to prevent communication from coming to a full stop.

Interactive bricolage

Catherine Kerbrat-Orecchioni (1999, 45) introduces the notion of interactive bricolage insofar as every conversation is “a series of ‘mini-incidents’ that are immediately neutralised – hitches and hang-ups that are quickly repaired – and the interactants manage jointly to construct a more or less coherent text only at the cost of their incessant tinkering”. Interactional sequences of either negotiation or repair (of terms, contents, forms, etc.) then occur in order to make the conversation possible and fluid. The notion of conversational negotiation refers to

any interactional process that may appear when a disagreement arises between the interactants concerning some aspect of the functioning of the interaction and whose purpose is to absorb said disagreement in order to allow the exchange to continue (Kerbrat-Orecchioni 2005, 103).

Interactional repair occurs when a trouble source arises in the interaction. Repair is a phenomenon that occurs

after a responsive turn has displayed to a prior speaker that, and how, the prior turn has been misunderstood (Schegloff 1990, 68).

It is thus clear that a social interaction rarely takes place without linguistic snags; failure is an intrinsic element of communication. What is important for participants is not simply trying to avoid failures, but, above all, learning to deal with them and to overcome them.

Digital technology and its bugs

The volatility of digital matter

When interactions take place through screens, participants also have to deal with incidents related to digital technology. Technology is itself a source of failures. As Stéphane Vial (2013, 213) explains, versatility is one of the intrinsic structural characteristics of digital phenomena, since “bugs are consubstantial with calculated matter” (2013, 213); a digital artefact “cannot live without bugs(2013, 214). Although, software programs and algorithms were created by humans, they do not guarantee perfectly controllable functioning a priori.

Adapting to bugs

Digital matter necessarily produces bugs when used: it is a matter “that falters, struggles, tumbles” (2013, 213).

Users become accustomed to these bugs and develop reflexes: when an application no longer responds to their input, does not react as expected or closes suddenly, users tend to repeat what they were doing, reopen the application or restart the device.

Ontophanic culture

Users’ adaptation to digital bugs shows that this versatility or instability is henceforth an integral part of “the ontophanic culture with which we have learned to live for several decades now. Having become accustomed to the functional vagaries of our computers, we know now that ‘they can crash’” (2013, 213).

Living in the digital age and integrating the unstable matter that is digital technology into our everyday interactions with others implies that “we entrust it with everything, but without ever being able to trust it entirely. And we know this” (2013, 216).

Nonetheless, it is still difficult to understand and accept the element of the unknown and unpredictable that digital technology introduces into our communication and our experience of the world, in the sense that there is a paradox between the growing power of these tools and their permanent fragility. Their users expect these ultra-connected, high-performance devices to respond to their needs right away, and they thus become more and more intolerant of technical incidents or bugs. Inasmuch as this instability is intrinsic to digital equipment, we need to develop a digital literacy that includes education about digital versatility. We need to learn to live with bugs: to accept their effects and to circumvent the damage they cause (2013, 216).

States of mediation

In an onscreen dialogal interaction (with two interlocutors) or a polylogal interaction (with more than two interlocutors) involving several communication devices, the individual is not left to face the bugs alone; the interlocutors need to collaborate to repair a technical incident. In the chapter on “Artefacted intercorporeality, between reification and personification”, we identified several phases in the process of mediation in problematic situations: demediation, remediation and immediation.

In this process, interactants draw on the technobodily resources available to preserve communication despite the multiple space-time frameworks and the incidents that they inevitably induce. To this end, participants in the interaction coordinate and cooperate among themselves and with the artefacts, both explicitly and implicitly. Each of the interactants has the opportunity to contribute to the preservation of communication by way of significant gestures, no matter how small, which form part of a complex technobodily network.

The collective and its intelligence

Construction of membership

Well-functioning onscreen interactions are based on the participants’ ability to make themselves visible and to make their productions and the activities in which they are situated intelligible. How social actors grasp the construction of intelligibility is at the heart of ethnomethodological research. This approach

seeks to analyse the social world not as it is given, but rather as it is continually in the process of being made, continually emerging, as an orderly, intelligible and familiar objective reality (Quéré 1990, 75).

Harold Garfinkel (1967), the founder of ethnomethodology, defined it as an approach that

analyzes everyday activities as members’ methods for making those same activities visibly-rational-and-reportable-for-all-practical-purposes, i.e., “accountable”, as organizations of commonplace everyday activities (1967, vii).


Garfinkel adds, moreover, that he uses this term

to refer to the investigation of the rational properties of indexical expressions and other practical actions as contingent ongoing accomplishments of organized artful practices of everyday life (1967, 11).

The concept underlying this whole approach, accountability, alludes to the fact that (re)cognisability, intelligibility and describability are essential properties of action (Mondada 2006, 117).


The relevant properties of the context, as well as the organisational properties of the action that is made recognisable, allow participants to make their practice intelligible to each other, in order to participate in it, to be involved in it and to coordinate. Accounts consist of explanations or descriptions that interactants give of their actions and that allow the participants to recognise what the action consists of (Heritage 1988, 128). These descriptions are themselves actions. Coulon illustrates the notion of accounts in the following terms:

To make the world visible is to make my action comprehensible by describing it, because I let its meaning be seen by revealing the procedures I use to report on it (Coulon 1987, 43).

Participants in the interaction then have to share a natural language in common; they draw on specific ethnomethods to organise their interaction. These shared ethnomethods form the basis of membership. Participants become “members” of a group by mastering a common language, which also includes unsaid elements, allusions and deictics (etc.), which are not intelligible to non-members.

Membership Categorization Devices

Participants employ categories that allow them to identify members in order to ensure orderly interaction (Mondada 1999, 24). Harvey Sacks developed the concept of membership categorisation devices (MCDs): devices that are divided into collections of categories (e.g.: “gender” is a collection that encompasses categories such as “male”, “female”, etc.). The categorisation devices that participants mobilise are particularly “tied to embodied and visible practices of speakers, as well as to their cognitive and interpretative practices” (Mondada 2014, 88). Although an individual could be categorised using an infinite number of collections, just one is generally viewed as sufficient. All the more so if this category establishes a dichotomy (“native/non-native”, “rich/poor”, “young/old” and, in our data, “online/offline”, “on site/remote”, etc.). This rule of conceptual economy is based on the fact that categorisation does not amount to giving a referentially accurate description, but rather a description that is deemed relevant in light of the context of the ongoing activity (Sacks 1992, 47).

Enacting collective intelligence

The actions undertaken by members of a group that is part of a collaborative arrangement can thus be viewed as the co-construction of a form of collective intelligence (Levy 1994). This means

understanding in a more and more precise and operative way how human groups function when they are engaged in a cooperative activity using networked computers or mobile terminals (Levy 2003, 106).

The process of intellectual cooperation

The origin of the theory of collective intelligence is to be found in “the remarkable growth of interactive, collective and decentralised modes of communication via an increasingly extensive, dense and powerful network of interconnected computers” (Levy 2003, 6), and its purpose is to stimulate or improve “processes of intellectual cooperation” in areas like collaborative learning, research networks, businesses and administrations, organisations and communities, etc. (Levy 2003, 106).

Characteristics of collective intelligence

Collective intelligence:

  • is “widely distributed” – no individual has total knowledge, but each individual contributes some knowledge.

  • is “constantly being valued” – the key value is what is human, and each member of the collective contributes qualitatively to its wealth, making them unique and precious.

  • is “coordinated in real time” – digital networks allow for large-scale communication and are a privileged interface for collective intelligence.

  • “leads to an effective mobilisation of competencies” – inasmuch as it is based on concrete skills, knowledge and expertise, collective intelligence is not just a theoretical concept, but refers to an efficient mode of social structuration. It favours ability over power.

Collective intelligence can take various forms depending on the contexts in which it emerges, the communities and their members. However, its co-construction involves invariable underlying characteristics: local and limited information from each member of the collective, a restricted set of basic rules, multiple and reticular interactions, and an emergent structure that is beneficial to both the individual and the group.

Implications of collective intelligence

These characteristics imply a decentralisation of knowledge and power, the autonomy and importance recognition of the members of the collective, a horizontalisation of relations based on intersubjectivity, a constant, real-time interactivity between the individual and their environment, the creation of multiple connected entities instead of a single massive structure, and a prioritisation of conviviality and ethics.

In a general sense, collective intelligence is thus defined as “the emergent behaviour of a heterogeneous network dynamic involving people, technical devices and messages (composed of symbols)” (Levy 2003, 113).

Three types of networks are outlined in a dynamic of interdependence:

Virtual development

Virtual human development “depends on actual development as its material basis, whereas actual development depends on virtual development as its instance of coordination, steering and traction” (Levy 2016). In a dynamic of transformation, virtual development is based on epistemic capital, ethical capital and abilities. Its actualisation is based on message capital, social capital and biophysical capital (Levy 2016). Collective intelligence is the outcome of balancing these relationships of interdependence See Pierre Levy’s semantic map of collective intelligence on the author’s website.↩︎.

The sense of personal efficacy

There is an unbreakable link between an individual and the community in which they evolve. In order for individuals to feel involved in collective evolution, they have to become aware of their relevance and their efficacy within the group. Albert Bandura (1980) developed the concept of the sense of personal efficacy (SPE) and introduced the idea that individuals’ subjective perception of their chances of success has a decisive influence on their behaviour.

Personal efficacy

According to Bandura, the main mechanism at the heart of human action is situated in an individual’s perception of their own personal efficacy. In his view, believing in one’s efficacy constitutes the most fundamental resource of motivation, going beyond the interest one may have in an object or a field. This belief is also what allows us to “be an agent” and intentionally influence our own functioning and our life circumstances (Bandura 2003, 13). Of course, there can often be a discrepancy between real talent and capacity for action, on the one hand, and an individual’s SPE, on the other, due to different forms of exposure, reinforcement and experience depending on gender, ethnicity and socio-economic background.

We employ the concept of SPE to measure its diachronic evolution among the seminar participants.

Analysis of the onscreen enaction of collective intelligence

Here we examine the ethnomethods used by interactants to deal with critical episodes occurring in a polyartefacted, screen-based hybrid experience. How does the group identify and overcome digital bugs and interactional failures in digital interaction and how, simultaneously, does it enact a form of collective intelligence?

Analytical research question

Using a multidimensional, ethological and reflexive approach, we first present an ethnomethodological description of a critical episode, followed by a transdisciplinary synthesis of the results of the work done along the three main axis of our research (attention, corporeality, politeness). Finally, we relate these new theoretical findings to the discursive analysis of the final assessment questionnaires. These questionnaires were completed by participants and cover the key points of their experience, as well as their further recommendations.

Ethological observation of a critical episode

In keeping with our reflexive, ethological and ethnomethodological approach, we start by observing the occurrence of a critical episode.

Description of a critical episode

We define critical episodes as moments in which communication for one or more participants, who are unwittingly excluded from the participation framework, has to be re-established in real time.

Critical episode

A critical episode occurs, for example, when a participant’s video or sound is no longer available, thus making the participant’s presence too weak to allow them to follow along with the seminar and to be taken into account by the others. Once alerted, the group makes an empathetic effortCf. the chapter “Attentional affordances in an instrumented seminar”.↩︎ to allow the participant to take up the thread of the seminar again.

Two issues are involved in a critical episode: both reestablishing a means for everyone to follow along with the seminar, but also dealing with potential stress, which is different for each participant depending on:

  • their role in the seminar (organiser, technical support, speaker, audience member, etc.),

  • their personality and competencies,

  • their sense of personal efficacy (Bandura 1980) and their confidence in the group’s efficacy in resolving the malfunctions.

The ex-situ participants could not always easily verbalise a technical problem: verbalisations interrupt the seminar and require the group to focus momentarily on the technology, thus generating an interactional fail. In the case of a conference, for example, giving an alert would mean interrupting the lecturer(s), which could be problematic if the participant(s) were not fully confident in the ability of the group to re-establish communication swiftly.

Observation of the management of a critical episode

In order to understand the strategies put in place by participants and to illustrate the asymmetry of perceptions, let us observe an interactional sequence that shows how participants manage a critical episode that occurred during the second session of the seminar (session 2 – The anthropologists’ lecture).

Beginning of the critical episode: the alert

Right from the start of the lecture (1min24s), during the introduction of the guest lecturers, Prisca posts in the Adobe chat about a sound problem, which is then relayed orally by Joséphine, in order to alert the people on site. In doing so, she interrupts one of the guest speakers, thus giving rise to a first interactional fail.

The lecturers first check if “Beam can hear”. Amélie confirms on the Beam that she can hear well. They then suggest getting closer to the microphone that is recording for the ex-situ participants. Several people move in order to put the microphone on their table, followed by the camera that is filming for the remote participants. Christine then says, “Let’s resume!”. The lecturers resume their presentation in a somewhat unfocused atmosphere: some participants are still standing, others are talking.

Discomfort on Adobe without remediation

When Joséphine alerts the group about the problem flagged in the chat by Prisca, Christine writes in turn: “The remote participants can’t hear us”. The problem turns out not to be the microphone that has been moved to the speakers’ table, but rather a camera that is only filming, and not recording or transmitting sound. In moving closer to the camera mistaken for a microphone, the speakers also moved closer to the computer recording the sound, improving the sound for the remote participants after all. This strategy is thus validated in the chat, “it’s better”, and the talk resumes without the problem being fully resolved or anybody realising it for the moment.

The problem is thus brought up again a few minutes later in the chat, this time without interrupting the speakers orally:

Christelle, who is participating remotely: “We can’t hear the young woman as well [as the others].”
Caroline, who is in the room: “That’s strange, the microphone is next to her.” (The camera continues to be confused with the microphone).

Twenty minutes later:

Prisca: “It’s too bad, it’s very hard to hear the [female] lecturer.”
Christelle: “Yes.”

Ten minutes go by:

Liping, who is participating remotely: “I’m having trouble hearing the young woman.” Christelle: “Yes :(*”

Twenty minutes go by again and, in the chat, Christine suggests that the remote participants ask questions if they want, to which Christelle responds: “We can’t hear well”. How can they ask questions when they have had a very hard time hearing the lecture?


Christine would like to organise the discussion period and she wants to give the floor to the participants via Adobe. Her first strategy is to orally state the rules for asking questions. “Raise your hand and the same thing remotely, wave to me”. There is no response from the remote participants since they are not able to hear Christine. The questions start in the seminar room. A few minutes later, Christine, who is committed to giving time to the participants via Adobe, tries a second strategy and orally says: “We’re going to give the floor to those on Adobe if you like. Christelle? Tatiana? Liping? Prisca?”. There is no response. “Can you hear me?” Still no response. This second strategy also fails. She then writes in the chat: “if someone wants to speak, write to me please”, but again, none of them respond.

The discussion continues in the seminar room. A few minutes later, Christelle writes in the chat: “Are the rest of you managing to follow along?” The remote participants reply that they are not able to.

Christine then writes: “The problem is that I don’t see your responses if there are any.”
Christelle: “The main problem is that we can’t hear.”
Then: “It’s interesting but we don’t want to interrupt.”

This last exchange shows the extent to which each participant is consumed by their own constraints and interactional role (member of the audience who cannot follow the talk, on the one hand, and organiser-“conductor” who is not able to get all the participants involved, on the other). By writing “it’s interesting but we don’t want to interrupt”, Christelle also verbalises the dilemma faced by the remote participants: the desire to flag the technical problem openly, so that it can be identified and resolved, as opposed to the reluctance to cause a new interactional fail by interrupting the session and revealing the discomfort that the remote participants have been experiencing for more than one and half hours.

Fail and solution

In the seminar room, as Jean-François is in the middle of formulating a question, Christelle, who has evidently identified the problem and the appropriate solution for resolving it, writes in the chat: “Turn on your microphone, Jean-François”. However, he does not seem to see the written message, and no one relays it to him orally. So Christelle speaks up, overlapping Jean-François’s question, the sound of her voice amplified by the loudspeakers: “turn on your microphone, Jean-François”, and then: “sorry eh but I wrote and you didn’t see it”.

Jean-François: “I just got scolded”, thus making the fail explicit.

Everyone in the seminar room laughs. Jean-François turns on the microphone on his computer. Finally, there is sound on Adobe.

Jean-François: “Is it okay now?”

There is a loud occurrence of audio feedback in the seminar room, causing an unpleasant echo. Christine turns off the microphone on the computer from which the sound is coming and the feedback effect stops. The guest lecturer reads in the chat and says: “I see a ‘super’ with three exclamation marks”. Everyone was surprised by the strategy, but it finally provided sound to the remote participants, thus resolving the technical problem.

The description of the occurrence of this critical episode up to its resolution by adopting the different points of view of the interlocutors illustrates several phenomena that we will elaborate upon below.

The lived experience varies for participants situated in different communicative spaces. This asymmetry of perception, along with the impossibility of fully comprehending the subjective experience of the other, leads the participants first to wonder – does the sound problem signalled on Adobe allow adequate listening comfort for the remote participants? Do they need help? Can I do something about the problem or is it simply a bug that I cannot do anything about? Am I capable of intervening? – and then to undertake a collective effort at co-constructing durable ethnomethods that allow them to make communication intelligible and fluid and their activities accountable.

It is also important to make one’s own perception intelligible and visible to others, so that they can choose to act (or not) upon obstacles, failures or other bugs.

A pictorial representation of remediation

This excerpt illustrates a pattern that is recurrent when analysing the seminar sessions.

Figure 1: Evolution of a critical episode in multimodal, polyartefacted interaction

In the conditions of this experience as it was unfolding, a devolution (Brousseau 1998) was required for the seminar to function smoothly for the remote participants: i.e., responsibility is transferred from the latter who are experiencing difficulties to the participants who are physically present in the seminar room.

Focus of attention

The participants physically present in the seminar room are in fact the only ones able to manipulate the equipment and serve as intermediaries between the different remote spaces of communication, if the remote spaces are prevented from interacting together. This responsibility can constitute a considerable focus of attention for on-site participants and create additional pressure.

On the importance of managing critical episodes and their diachronic evolution.


Critical episodes are thus crucial moments, since how they are dealt with may lead participants to disengage from the situation.

Risk of disengagement

The following extract from the questionnaire, in which we have highlighted certain discursive elements, demonstrates the risk of disengagement during a critical episode:

How did you experience the communication situation?

Christelle, 18 November 2016, participant on Adobe: “It was difficult, because the sound problem prevented us from understanding the lecture properly (especially when the young woman was speaking), the same thing for the discussion part, so sometimes I disengaged from the seminar. I also had to deal with the pdf and it was hard since I wasn’t with the lecturers, so I had to follow on the background of the screen of the little video of the lecturers to see when they were changing their slides.”

The on-site participants also felt a form of discomfort, as the following example illustrates:

How did you experience the communication situation?

Joséphine, 18 November 2016, participant physically present in the seminar room: “It was good, but I felt bad for those who were remote since they couldn’t hear well.”

Participation framework

In both the questionnaires and the interviews, participants mention their difficulties and discomfort vis-à-vis the technical problems encountered by their interlocutors.

These problems can even hinder oral participation, since participants are expecting that they won’t be able to include everyone in the desired participation framework.

The example of Josephine

Were you able to participate in the way you wanted?

Joséphine, 18 November 2016, participant physically present in the seminar room: “Yes, but since I didn’t have a laptop, I didn’t have Adobe Connect, so I was reluctant to speak, because I knew that remote participants would have trouble hearing me.”

Participation effort

The thread of communication is sometimes tenuous: being present and making it possible for others to be present requires a real effort.

The example of Christelle

Were you able to participate as in the way you wanted?

Christelle, 18 November 2016, participant on Adobe): “Somewhat, as I explained above. I couldn’t take notes outside of the Adobe space, too complicated, difficult sound, and without the image I would have completely lost the thread. However, other people’s note-taking allowed me to pick up the thread sometimes.”

We see in this example that the group’s effort gives a “lifeline” to participants who find themselves momentarily in difficulty, allowing them to stay in touch with what is happening and not completely disengage from the seminar.

If participants in difficulty did not receive the expected help during the critical episode, this does not mean that the others were indifferent to what they were experiencing. On the contrary, we see that the difficulties of the remote participants also constrained their own participation and made them uncomfortable. At that precise moment (situated at the very start of the seminars), they simply did not know how to deal with the situation and undoubtedly were reluctant to interrupt the guest lecturers yet again.

Diachronic evolution

Data analysis

It could thus be expected that over time, fewer problems would be flagged since such problems could be anticipated and should occur less frequently.

In fact, the data shows that the number of reported critical episodes remains stable. Effective techniques were established to anticipate a certain number of problems: the speaker turned on their microphone and the others turned theirs off; as many of the on-site participants as possible used Adobe Connect; everyone paid attention to the chat; the slides were sent to everyone by email and provided as pdfs on Adobe; the guest lecturers used Adobe instead of PowerPoint to show their presentation, etc. However, these multiple strategies did not prevent the occasional occurrence of bugs that are inherent to digital tools, such as the connection or the hardware slowing down, regardless of the participants’ skills.

Insofar as each session had a specific context (with or without guest lecturer(s), in French or English, which can reduce the number of people wanting to speak, different types of activities), it is difficult to compare them quantitatively in a scientifically adequate way. Nonetheless, we found that problems were flagged and dealt with in the sessions with the following forms of resolution:

Figure 2: Modalities for dealing with a technical problem

Our results showed that not only the group’s technical skills, but also the sense of personal efficacy (Bandura 1980) of both the group and the individuals evolved over time.

The number of technical problems (whether reported or not) did not decrease, but participants became more confident in the group’s capacity to resolve them swiftly and efficiently, so that they do not refrain from signalling them when they did occur. This phenomenon is confirmed by the questionnaires completed at the end of each seminar and by the verbal interactions recorded during the seminars, in which we found self-congratulations and references to the fact that the bugs and failures were resolved more and more quickly.

Transdisciplinary synthesis of the results of the thematic research areas

The critical episodes that gave rise to interactional failures and digital bugs were studied by the team in an interdisciplinary approach as part of our collective, ethological and reflexive research project. Each of the axis – attention, politeness, and corporeality – highlights the key properties of the co-construction of presence during a hybrid experience. In this section, we provide a transdisciplinary synthesis of the theorisations developed from these analyses. They show us, from multiple angles, both the intrinsic nature of interactional failures and digital bugs on the one hand, and the significance that these incidents have for the construction of collective intelligence on the other.

The development of inter-attention

Attention is reclassified within the seminar, which is shown to be a dual attentional set-up: in its material construction of space and in its relational construction. The co-construction of attention emerges within the specific horizon of expectations of the seminar, which is itself modified by the technological equipment. The hybrid physical-digital apparatus creates a disruption of intersubjective attention due to the non-reciprocity of perspectives. In spite of this disruption, the group works together to enact a form of interattention which entails a sort of co-responsibility towards oneself and others. For example, if there is a false affordance, the group intervenes to give the misunderstanding visibility and to make the interaction possible and fluid.

The occurrence of interactional failures is not only connected to the emergence of digital bugs but is related to the principle of membership inasmuch as the attention towards each of the members comprising the collective is a sine qua non for interactional felicity. Inter-attention implies making each participant’s activities accountable by way of ethnomethods of meta-vigilance that allow the invisible or misinterpreted elements of the complex spatio-temporal network configuration to be perceived. The aim is to construct the collective in a network of individual attention to both the organic and the technological members of the network, which is thus maintained by a growing confidence in the group and its competencies.

Enaction of a polyartefacted intercorporeality

The need to achieve a form of mutual and shared perception of the hybrid and reticular environment also becomes apparent in the analyses of the corporeality axis. Participants structure their actions during the seminar in such a way as to achieve a common ecological perception for all members, but from multiple angles – a perception that is maintained by way of the different states of technobodily mediation (demediation, remediation, and immediation). These actions do not emanate from particular roles or positions, but from the functions of procurator, witness and sentinel that participants embody according to a group mechanism: a chain of distributed agency that is organised by way of multimodal and polyartefacted communication.

The subjects and objects of the interactional network thus find themselves hybridised to the point that a dual process of personification and reification emerges in the technobodily, polyartefacted mediation. On the one hand, a vocal-gestural attribution of artefactual characteristics is given to the living subject by others – reification – and, on the other, the vocal-gestural attribution of human characteristics is given to the subject’s artefact by others: personification.

The communicative affordances and the positioning of the bodies and the artefacts in space mean that participants need to cooperate, insofar as they cannot individually undertake the physical-digital mediation, but have to depend on each other’s complementarity and develop confidence in this complementarity of knowledge and skills. This extension of action and perception, involves intercorporeality which allows for the co-construction of a shared world, or interworld (Merleau-Ponty 1988, 317).

Digital interactional maxims

In order to construct this interworld, it remains essential to prevent the contours of bodies and artefacts from becoming so fluid that they dissolve individuals’ own identities. As the research conducted on politeness shows, this is a matter of respecting and valuing participants’ personalities as they are known and acknowledged off-screen. This need for acknowledgment is particularly key in the choice of nominal forms of address.

Analysis of the forms of address used by on-site participants to address one another or to refer to participants in the light of membership categorisation devices (Sacks 1992) highlights three categorisation collections (Sacks 1992) of the remote participants.

  1. Group categorisation: group effect of the remote participants.

  2. Object categorisation: artefact used to attend the seminar remotely.

  3. Person categorisation: identity of the remote participant.

Studying these categorisations diachronically reveals significant attenuation of the group effect (category 1) between the first and the last session, over a period of six months, and an evolution of the terms employed, with a designation mainly by the artefact (category 2) giving way to participants being called by their first name (category 3). What is at stake in these ethnomethods is finding a balance between the construction of the collective and respecting individuality, reducing the effects of reification of the animate, and avoiding the group being divided into subgroups based solely on geographical location.

From the perspective of a digital literacy that integrates interactional failures and digital bugs, the subgroup for research on politeness drafted digital interactional maxims for a “hybrid culture of interaction” such as the polyartefacted seminar: the maxim of interactional opening, the maxim of communication, the maxim of movements, the maxim of address, the maxim of platform, the maxim of interactional closing.

These recommendations are also found in the comments of the participants who filled out questionnaires after the seminar sessions. The participants were able to provide the most explicit account of their experience in these questionnaires, where we found conscious traces of the construction of a collective intelligence. In this section, we relate the questionnaires to the theoretical and analytical elements that have been discussed thus far.

Key points on the subjective experience of participants and recommendations

The focus of our interest here is, more precisely, the first and last questions addressed to the twelve participants in the final assessment questionnaire.

Question 1: “What are the most striking aspects of your experience in the seminar this year?”

In addressing this question, we can distinguish between approaches depending on the modalities and instantiations of presence. We bring together the responses of members who regularly:

It should be noted that these categorisations are fluid and dynamic and that a member can be affiliated with several of these categories in practice.

The ex-situ artefacted members have in common the fact that, in their responses, they emphasised their relationship to the artefacts more than to the other participants.

Artefacted participants

Christelle underscores the fact that she tested all the modalities of presence (Adobe, Kubi, Beam, but also in-situ) and could thus compare them. Amélie contrasts the logistical advantage that using the Beam robot provided her – namely, the freedom and technical quality – with the socio-affective handicap created by this same independence to the extent that she does not believe that she created a bond with the in-situ participants. Samira highlights the construction of small communities attached to each mode of presence. Finally, Liping recalls the difficulties she encountered in being present through a screen, in particular, with respect to the poor quality of her internet connection and the problem of the time difference between China and France.

As for the members who regularly embodied the role of sentinel, they point out the permanent need to be alert, as well as the innovative character of the experience, which entailed multidisciplinarity and a divergence of profiles, but a convergence of objectives.

The role of sentinel

Caroline describes how she enjoyed participating in this auto-ethnographic co-construction relationally and intellectually due to its multidisciplinarity, as did Jean-François who describes his experience as dense and captivating. Jean-François emphasises the novelty and complexity of the socio-technical apparatus (both of the seminar and of the data collection). Both Jean-François and Joséphine identify the points that the subgroups have in common and their divergences. Joséphine also notes that it was interesting to be part of an experiment both as a “guinea pig” and as a metacognitive subject, thus revealing a post-dualism embodied in the hybridity of the apparatus and that depends on the group’s benevolence.

The members who mainly embodied the role of procurator invoke above all the group’s benevolence and the solidarity of the collective.

The role of procurator

Christine, in particular, held this role; she notes a contrast between the insecurity of the early days and the ultimate construction of an increasingly solid collective. This solidity originates from the complementarity of the participants’ skills and resources, but also from the work accomplished, from maintaining motivation, from the good quality of the interpersonal relationships and from shared values. The same is true for Dorothée, who stresses the diachronic construction of the group, as well as the responsibility and pressure entailed by the data collection and, at the same time, the existence of another group in absentia of individuals who would be accessing the data a posteriori. Both Dorothée and Morgane note the learning process and the acquisition of technical and scientific expertise that the experience made possible. Morgane also considers the richness of her experience as a “mediator” in setting up the hybrid apparatus and in its evolution.

Finally, the members who mainly embodied the role of witness emphasise, above all, the reflexivity and distance taking that is specific to their experience.

The role of witness

Mabrouka highlights the notion of self-reflexivity on the work of the researcher and their (epistemological, methodological, technical) research environment, as well as the need to address utility and technological determinism while taking a certain distance. Yigong describes the role of technology in the deconstruction-reconstruction of the modalities of speaking turns during the seminar, in that the relationships turned out to be more horizontal, with exchanges between participants who were no longer just simple attendees at conferences, but members of a collective.

The key points identified by the participants in this hybrid experience match the properties of collective intelligence as defined by Pierre Levy (2016). The ex-situ artefacted members highlight the network of things with their focus on resources and equipment; the sentinels, the knowledge network with epistemic and message capital; and the procurators, the network of beings with ethical and social capital. The complementarity of the actors and the maintenance of the networks thus allow this unique group to enact a form of collective intelligence.

Question 4: “Which advice would you give to someone who would like to use a mixed on-site/remote system?”

Here again, the participants’ responses reveal elements that are characteristic of the co-construction of membership and the enaction of collective intelligence transcending interactional failures and digital bugs. The participants who made the recommendations summarised here are indicated in parentheses.

Regarding the network of signs:

Regarding the network of beings:

Regarding the network of things:

The recommendations make clear that the participants have a common perception of the socio-technical challenges involved and an implicit awareness of the network dynamics underlying the emergence of collective intelligence and based on the complementarity of the members and their confidence in their ability to cooperate. One of the participants formulates the main recommendation that transcends all the others: “accept that technical problems are an integral part of the set-up” (Joséphine). Participants thus simply need “to try to keep the margin of improvisation to a minimum, since something unexpected is going to happen no matter what” (Caroline).

The multidimensional approach in this reflexive ethological study of the enaction of screen presence has elucidated the ecology of the unique experience of a hybrid polyartefacted research seminar in a transdisciplinary way. The ethnomethodological description of a critical episode, along with the transdisciplinary synthesis of the results of the work done along the three main axis of our research and the discursive analysis of the final assessment questionnaires, have revealed what we call the technobodily ethnomethods used by participants to anticipate, work around or resolve incidents that occur during critical episodes.

Our approach to this hybrid experience reveals that identifying and resolving interactional failures and digital bugs requires mutual attention, precautionary face work and distributed agency. Moreover, technical and conversational incidents prove to be beneficial inasmuch as they contribute to the co-construction of collective intelligence (Levy 1994) and enacting a group ethos that does not reduce the number of critical episodes, but qualitatively improves how they are dealt with. This process reinforces the sense of efficacy (Bandura 1980) in both individual and collective capacities for remediation. Presence is maintained in a dynamic process of balance and interdependence among the networks of subjects, of things and of signs.

Technobodily ethnomethods

The negotiations that are needed to repair various acts that are face-threatening for the actors involved take the form of what we call technobodily ethnomethods. The aim in the network of signs is to create online collaborative spaces and to draft digital interactional rules (maxims of interactional opening, communication, movement and address). In the network of beings, roles need to be identified and multimodal attention skills developed, as well as a certain trust and quality of relationships. The network of things is based on a rigorous and thoughtful selection and integration of high-quality artefacts and on a technical support team, as well as on training participants in the use of the artefacts.

Once these technobodily ethnomethods are mastered by the group’s members, interactional failures and digital bugs no longer prevent the maintenance of overall interactional felicity. On the contrary, the stress and pressure initially generated by critical episodes give way to the acceptance of their inexorable, but banal, character and to people’s creativity in resolving them one after another.

Balancing principle

This balance between pleasure (helping one another, facing a challenge, satisfaction in finding a solution) and frustration (pressure, cognitive overload, failures, bugs) recalls the balancing principle (Schell 2008) used in the development of games to maintain the player’s engagement over time. Maintaining engagement requires a level of difficulty that is sufficient to ensure that players are trying, but also that the game is fair (fairness principle, Schell 2008), so that players do not lose interest. This is also true in the seminar, in which participants navigate between feelings of difficulty and pleasure.


Meta-vigilance and inter-attention thus constitute the indispensable preconditions for polylogal and polyartefacted onscreen presence. These conditions are the basis for constructing an effective and confident collective that forms part of anf organic and technological network of action and perception.

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