The medium of Skype

by Alexis Hamann-Nazaroff

I want to talk about Skype, a medium for communication that is hugely important in the current shape of my life.  While a lot of college students are far from their families, I feel like my family in particular likes to spread out to the four corners of the earth.  I lived in Germany for a couple of years.  My boyfriend is still there.  My older sister lives in Japan.  My parents spend significant portions of each year in both Denmark and in Singapore.  But skype shapes how we deal with these kinds of international separations.

In these rather silly photos, my younger sister and I, who could make it to our childhood home for Christmas-time a few years ago, share all the Christmas cards and decorations, via skype, with our older sister, who could not make it.

James Carey describes the telegraph as the technology that “permitted for the first time the effective separation of communication from transportation.” If Skype has a parallel, it permits for the first time the separation of long-distance, simultaneous communication from high costs.  In other words, unlike international phonecalls, Skype is free.  For my life, this means I can conceive spending many hours per day connected to my boyfriend in Germany, with no concern about racking up bills.  Also, skype permits (although a number of similar programs permit this now as well) the re-connection between long-distance, simultaneous communication of sound and sight.

Skype as part of an orchestrated combination of technologies and social conditions: The technology of skype makes an impact in a world where international lifestyles, like that of my family are not unusual.  While skype helps to make my long-distance relationships sustainable, it gains meaning from the relationships, rather than the other way around.

Skype and the conditions of space and time: Obviously, Skype interacts with conditions of space.  Skype allows for simultaneous communication and, like a telephone call, does not record the communication for the future.  Just a couple of days ago however, on my newly updated Skype a button appeared to “leave a video message”.  A new feature and I will have to wait and see whether or not this changes my interactions with skype, and the meaning of what I can and choose to do with Skype.

The social-ideological value, power, and authority of skype: Unlike written communication, skype communication is more informal.  Something said on Skype is not imbued with a higher power than something said in a physical, in-person conversation.  In fact, the social-ideological value of skype, at least for interpersonal relationships as I use it for is diminished in comparison to physical, “real” contact because there are so many symbolically significant acts in “real” contact (ex: hugs, kisses, handing someone a gift, sharing a meal together that includes smelling and tasting things simultaneously etc.) that cannot be simulated over skype.  These symbolic acts have enormous social-ideological value, that we often take for granted in our daily lives, but notice when we have to make-do without them over skype.