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October 5, 2003
sociocultural concerns about skype
Two weeks ago, Clay posted an entry about Skype
. Since then, i've been trying to process my skepticism. I'm a huge fan of P2P - i believe that it destabilized power in a valuable way - but sociocultural concerns make me wary of Skype. Three primary concerns come to mind:
1) IM is valuable because it is semi-synchronous.
2) Voice is disruptive to semi-public environments, which is where the majority of (non-business) users participate on computers.
3) Cell phone penetration and the mobility that this permits discourages any audible interactions tied to a networked machine.
1) Unlike other forms of synchronous interactions, most IM users are multi-tasking. It is not socially unacceptable to allow a limited amount of time to lapse between messages. Most IM users are engaged in multiple conversations or multi-tasking between IM and web-surfing or other activities. This makes IM exceptionally different than other forms of "synchronous" communication. Adults may scoff at this, but any teenager knows that IM is fantastic for social multi-tasking (and thus, allows for increased gossip
2) Voice is disruptive to semi-public environments. Most (non-business) people in the world share their computer or use public clusters. Only in the wealthiest households do all members of a family have computers in their private quarters or have computers mobile enough to transport to a private location. In a semi-public situation, audible conversations are disruptive to the entire space or do not allow for the kinds of privacy that most people expect on the phone. Even on mobile phones (outside of the States), texting has become exceptionally popular because of the ability to converse without disrupting the environment. Because of this, most users are not using computers in space conducive for ad-hoc audible social interactions.
3) Cell phone penetration and the mobility that this permits discourages any audible interactions tied to a networked machine. In the 80s, the wireless phone was a privileged teenage girl's dream come true. Without a tether, phone conversations could be moved to private quarters. As cell phone penetration increases globally, people are realizing the power of privatizing phone conversations and being able to have mobility. Economics and quality of connection are the only reasons to negotiate connections tied to location.
Of course, this is precisely why this technology will be useful to certain populations. A good example would be members of any diaspora. The ability for poor people to freely connect with family members living elsewhere on the planet is quite energizing. (Of course, if it will always be free, how will Skype make money?) Given this, one feature that would drastically increase the value of Skype would be group voice chat (not just 3-way). This would be great both for family social connections as well as business/non-profit/research connections. The former is willing to connect in order to save money; the latter are frequently tied to a physical environment.
I should note that another huge advantage of Skype is the ability to have presence detection. This easily encourages ad-hoc social conversations. Of course, this is also the kind of feature that i suspect cell phones will quickly incorporate.
I'd really like to understand the excitement of social software enthusiasts. What is it about Skype that motivates you? Do you think that its popularity will be limited to specific communities?
PS: My skepticism increased dramatically when i read that Skype thinks it's better than IM clients "Because it works!"
What on earth does that mean?
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