Simon Dumenco

The Real Problems With the Facebook-Skype Deal

In the Post-Telco Age, We're Supposed to Get Excited That Facebook Wants to Be Your Phone Company?

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In the wake of Facebook's announcement that it's teaming up with Skype to offer Facebook video chat, a lot of people have been pointing out that MySpace did a deal with Skype four years ago. Most notably, MySpace co-founder Tom Anderson pointed it out in a Google+ post that TechCrunch got his permission to repost. He was awfully gracious about it, suggesting that while MySpace was there first, perhaps it was simply too early:

At MySpace we launched what Zuckerberg is announcing in 2007 (try googling "myspace skype partnership"), and MySpace also had one-on-one video chat back in 2004. The point is that people weren't really ready for it back then -- now is the time, and Facebook has the user base. The large user base (750 million) paired with a simple integration of arguably the best voice/video tech (Skype) is what makes this news.

Even more awesome is the fact that after Mashable's Jennifer Van Grove spun his take in a post last night titled MySpace Released Skype-Powered Calls … In 2007, Anderson showed up in the comments section with this response:

Well this kinda misrepresents my post, though I understand that 's not your main concern here Jennifer. :) My point was *not* a knock on FB. The most, is very positive towards Facebook, and towards Google+ I think it is the right time to introduce such a feature. That said, and for some more historical background, the only reason we didn't launch the video part of Skype was that it was nixed as a safety concern by a Newscorp exec. The AGs were very afraid of what may appear on a Myspace webcam :) !

How great is that ? News Corp. suits were totally picturing Chatroulette-esque unpleasantness years before Chatroulette! (What visionaries!)

Since Facebook is based on real identities, Chatroulette-style penis-flashing shouldn't be the problem that it would have been for quasi-anonymous (and teen-tastic) MySpace, but I think "the time is right" arguments about the Facebook-Skype deal miss a larger general point: Video chat is unpleasant even without (unwanted) penises for all kinds of reasons.

For starters, people just look awful on video chat. Skype may well have, as Tom Anderson puts it, "arguably the best voice/video tech," but it still sucks. I use Skype video chat for work sometimes when I do interviews, and it's always just... gross. (As I noted back when I interviewed my old friend and colleague David Carr of The New York Times via Skype video chat, for the first few minutes of our call it looked like he was foaming at the mouth -- but it turned out to be scallion cream cheese from the bagel he'd been chomping on. For his part, David noted, accurately, that I looked "like hell.") Sadly, as video-chat technology -- particularly video resolution -- improves, things can only get worse. (Just consider how HD television has transformed our understanding of celebrity beauty, given how we can now see that certain actors and actresses have to basically be trowel-spackled with industrial-strength make-up to look presentable.)

But the bigger issue is that the phone call -- whether voice-only or "upgraded" with video -- is dying. There's a major generational shift away from calls of any sort. See Pamela Paul's spring take in the Times on the new telephone etiquette: "Don't Call Me, I Won't Call You", in which she wrote:

It's at the point where when the phone does ring -- and it's not my mom, dad, husband or baby sitter -- my first thought is : "What's happened? What's wrong?" My second thought is : "Isn't it weird to just call like that ? Out of the blue? With no e-mailed warning?"

Ask any person under 20 how often they actually voice-call their friends vs. texting them or reaching out to them via Facebook. (Or, hell, ask me -- and I'm way past 20.)

Those who think there's a natural fit between social media and voice/video calling because they're both "real-time" modes of communication are missing a huge truth about social media: It's actually not all that "real-time" most of the time. Post an update on Facebook and none of your friends need be interrupted -- telephone-style -- unless they want to be; instead, they'll get to it when they get to it and respond to it (or not) when they feel like it. The "likes" and comments accrue not instantly but over time -- minutes, hours, days.

Even the seeming instantaneity of Twitter is misleading. Trending topics may surge into view within moments of a real-world event (e.g., breaking news of a celebrity death or some just-broadcast moronic moment on a reality-TV show), but there's always a long tail of response that extends for hours and days as people catch up to "real-time" and react to reactions to reactions of the recent past. On Twitter right now, as I type this, the most retweeted tweet related to the Casey Anthony trial is this bit from comedian Bill Maher: "@billmaher: Kim Kardashian is upset with Casey Anthony verdict? Ur father defended O.J.! Starting the Kardashian tradition of getting black men off." He tweeted that 13 hours ago.

Mind you, I'm not knocking the availability of Skype video chatting on Facebook -- I think it's a nice addition to Facebook's bell-and-whistles (and a nice competitive hedge against Google video chat in Gmail and Google+). I just take issue with some of the breathless analysis of the partnership. Like David Kirkpatrick's take on The Daily Beast, titled "Facebook Becomes Your Phone Company" and subtitled "The new deal between Skype and the social network does more than batter Google -- it finally turns Facebook from a website into a telecommunications giant."

Besides the fact that it sounds like a total insult to call a company a "telecommunications giant," consider this passage in Kirkpatrick's post:

Facebook co-founder Dustin Moskovitz used to rant against something he calls "representational identity" -- associating people with numbers, for example, instead of their names. Why should I have to keep track of someone's home number, cell number, work number, Skype address, email address, IM account, Twitter name, and all the other ways they have to label themselves? Why shouldn't we instead be able to simply click on our friend's name and connect to them? That is the breakthrough today's Facebook-Skype announcement points toward...

There's a logical disconnect here that 's perhaps generational. In the old telco glory days, when people used to keep giant Rolodexes on their desks (or their secretary's desks), keeping track of phone numbers was a legitimate hassle. Today, though, we're post-telco and post-Rolodex because we're post-call.

I'm not a Facebook friend of Dustin Moskovitz (though I can see that we have three "friends" in common). But I know this much about him: He probably doesn't want anybody interrupting him willy-nilly all day with Facebook-via-Skype "calls." Because there are simply better ways to communicate that aren't so interruptive, disruptive and, well, so "real-time."

The reality of the social-media age is that it's often slightly or very asynchronous -- and we like it that way.

Simon Dumenco is the "Media Guy" media columnist for Advertising Age. Follow him on Twitter @simondumenco.

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