This question has preoccupied me throughout the pandemic as someone who missed organising face-to-face events but also hoped the crisis would lead to a shift towards online meetings becoming the norm, unless there was some pressing purpose served by meeting in person. There are two obvious theoretical perspectives to bring to such a question.
For Peter Sloterdijk it is a question of the “mutually affecting vibrations” which emerge when people come together… what Heidegger described as ‘moods’ are in reality “never the affair of individuals in the seeming privacy of their existential ecstasy; they form as shared atmospheres – emotionally tinted totalities of involvement – between several actors who tint the space of closeness and make room for one another in it” (Globes pg 138). His suggestion is that “The world of closeness arises from the sum of our actions towards one another and our suffering through one another” (Globes pg 139).
It could also be explained in terms of the work of Randall Collins who explores how “the local structure interaction is what generates and shapes the energy of the situation”. The point he is making here recalls Durkheims account of religious ritual in which the harmonisation of attention creates a charge to interactions. As he goes onto write, “energy can leave traces, carrying over to further situations because individuals bodily resonate with emotions, which trail off in time but may linger long enough to charge up a subsequent encounter”.
The curious flatness which often characterises online meetings, the sense of being alone together to use Turkle’s phrase, could be framed in terms of the absence of an atmosphere in Sloterdijk’s sense and the inability to energise interactions in Collins’ sense. It isn’t possible for online meetings to be energised but when it happens it does so in spite of the social infrastructure which has facilitated the gathering. I suspect this excitement is also virtual in Donati’s sense of a response to an internalised representation of what is happening rather than a vibe which pervades the encounter in a truly relational way. If this diagnosis is correct then it represents a severe ontological limitation of online meetings which needs to be considered alongside their many affordances. If we move to an understanding where in person meetings are received purely for when co-presence serves a specific purposes then understanding the types of purpose which can be served by gathering people together in time and space is a crucial undertaking.