A few days ago, Facebook broke its text-and-photo format wide open and launched instant Skype video calling for Facebook friends. The timing was odd—or perfect—as Google had just introduced Google+, a social initiative that had a group video chat product, "Hangouts," as a core offering.
Add in Apple’s FaceTime on Macs and iPhones, Skype’s growth into mobile platforms, and the features already built into Gmail, and video chat is basically inescapable—if not always necessary. It’s "the cupholder of social networking," as The Atlantic’s Alexis Madrigal put it. Very soon the excuse that, "I don’t have a camera" won’t fly, and you'll have to stay seated during conference calls.
What’s a disheveled enemy of eye contact to do? Here are a few tips on making the most of your face-to-face future, whether you like it or not:
Get a Real Headset and a Wired Connection
When the producers of "This Week in Tech" ring up their guests for a video chat, this is their first request. I should know—I’m an occasional guest, and, at first, was a spirited believer in Good Enough. I thought my Wi-Fi was great (Wireless N!) and my behind-the-ears Bluetooth headphones perfectly fine for plain old voice.
You don’t notice the slight delay of wireless Internet when pulling up web pages, but it drops video frames in a streaming feed at an alarming rate. And when you’re in a group chat, everybody’s audio is getting compressed—unless you’re talking to a professional studio with quadruple Skype channels. So grab a good USB headset (TWiT suggests this Plantronics .Audio 655 for its guests) and an ethernet cable if you don’t have one, and start out at the highest possible experience, before the reality of modern broadband knocks you down.
Don’t Send Unexpected Video Chat Requests
If you need to talk urgent business in depth with somebody, initiate a voice call. It is, after all, what generations of workers have done before you. But don’t initiate a video connection out of the blue. At best, you’ll get someone who’s dressed and groomed decently, but likely too distracted to provide the subtle interaction you’re looking for. In most cases, you’ll just reaffirm how odd people look staring at computers, and waste time waiting for someone to get settled and hooked up.
Don’t Take the Silences in Google+ Hangouts Too Seriously
The thinking behind the group video chat Hangouts in Google+ is that they’re not video chat appointments. They’re places to chime in when you’ve got something, but otherwise feel free to lurk. Vic Gundotra, Google’s senior vice president of engineering, compares Hangouts to being "inside a pub or on a front porch"—people come, people go, and conversations and listeners can occasionally drift.
That’s not to say a team can’t meet in a Hangout, or that serious matters are off the agenda. But don’t treat every contact you see in a Hangout as someone itching to be spoken with, or a dull reaction as a statement on your speaking prowess.
Respect the Need for Actual Skype
Facebook didn’t incorporate Skype wholly into its platform, but just enough to provide for video calling. The stand-alone desktop software still offers features that Facebook doesn’t even try for: screen sharing, fully logged chats, support for higher resolution cameras, and, for paying Premium customers, group video chats. More to the point, some businesses will never be quite keen on their employees staying logged into Facebook at all times, one click away from their friends’ latest takes on last night’s TV.
So grab a copy of Skype if you need to call someone in a business environment, unless requested otherwise. They likely know Skype, moderately like Skype, and might even trust Skype, if their last call didn’t mysteriously drop.
[Image: Flickr user meddygarnet]