Every Sunday afternoon my family of four logs on to Skype and my mother-in-law in California magically appears on my laptop. When we started this space age ritual it seemed to be a perfect way to let Grandma see how the little ones were growing and let her read a story or two to her grandchildren. After the first Skype experience I wanted to sign up all the far-flung relatives and set up a virtual family reunion. Then the novelty wore off and I now find myself agreeing with Time’s John Ueland – the idea behind Skype is much more exciting than the reality of staring at each other on the computer screen.
Don’t get me wrong, I love that my daughter can entertain Grandma with her latest diddy and was delighted when my son joined in the verbal assault as soon as he could pull himself up to the camera and project his baby babble. It’s cute stuff.
But not unlike Ueland, I began to feel oddly uncomfortable in front of the tiny recording device at the top of my laptop. I prefer the anonymity of the phone even if I’m not taking advantage of that in the manner Ueland does. (Note to Ueland and my brother – everyone can tell when you’re sending email and not paying attention to the other end of the line. Everyone.) Sitting still and conversing is also suddenly uncomfortable after years of cordless and mobile freedom and I find myself – like Ueland – doing a heck of a lot of off-camera house cleaning during that Skype appointment.
Apparently, we’re not alone. MIT professor, Sherry Turkle weighed in on the ambivalence of Skype users –
She told me people are not only uninterested in Skype, we’re also not interested in talking on the regular phone. We want to TiVo our lives, avoiding real time by texting or e-mailing people when we feel like it. “Skype, which was the fantasy of our childhood, gets you back to sitting there and being available in that old-fashioned way. Our model of what it was to be present to each other, we thought we liked that,” she said. “But it turns out that time shifting is our most valued product. This new technology is about control. Emotional control and time control.”
I’ll buy that. When you feel bombarded by requests from children, spouses and bosses; it’s lovely to be able to decide when you’ll answer your voice- and e-mail. Preferably when the kids are napping, you’ve reached your deadline and you can actually process the words in your inbox. Skype requires on the fly answers as you look someone in the eye. Something that is somehow more difficult with an image sitting in a 22″ box than when chatting in person. Skype is another element that facilitates communication and therefore requires more communication. Great for the grandkids, eh for the busy parents.
But just like Gymboree and brunch at 9am – this is something we do for the kiddos (and Grandma) and I still wouldn’t mind getting the rest of the family their own appointment time. It’s a heck of a lot cheaper than plane tickets and creates a closer family connection for our little ones. Plus, in a year or two the kids will know how to log on to the magic box all by themselves, leaving their dad and me to our own devices. Like updating our Facebook status.