Facebook added a new way of socializing yesterday, or rather incorporated an old way. Now in addition to poking, messaging, posting, tagging, linking, questioning and otherwise exposing yourself to your friends—and your friends to your friends—you can video chat. Mark Zuckerberg thinks this is "awesome." I think it is just another feature. Or worse, a feature few people will really use.
Before I get all cranky, let me say it looks like Facebook's implementation is pretty elegant. It will roll out over the next few weeks, but once you get it and install a small applet, you are good to go. (Find out How to Get Facebook Video Chat here.) If you try to call someone that doesn't have the software, they will be prompted to download it and you will be face to face in minutes. We had some problems with our connection yesterday, but it was launch day so those can be forgiven. It seems to work really well. And yet, I don't see a game changer here.
My first point: we have been able to do this for quite some time. Video chat is built into AIM, Yahoo Messenger, Windows Live Messenger, and countless other chat apps for years. And don't forget Skype, the foundation upon which Facebook Video Chat is built. Facebook Video Chat doesn't require you to download the full Skype client, but the functionality certainly existed before. Anyone who really wanted to video chat on their PC certainly could have done so already.
Second, the feature doesn't work on mobile devices, which many people think are a major potential application of video chat. Fring, Qik, and FaceTime are all playing in this space, but I never see anyone actually using it. Have you? And before you answer, remember that commercials and paid-placements in episodes of 24 don't count.
While I am on AIM all day every day, the last time I made a personal video call was when I was in Taipei last year, and that was mostly for the novelty of it. I dread doing TV appearances via Skype because I inevitably look underlit and jerky. And who wants to look like a dim jerk? We have the ability to video chat right now and very few of us do so regularly. There are, of course, exceptions.
The way I see it there are two audiences for video chat. One is family members that want to see their kids. This could do pretty well on Facebook, in one click you can going from looking at the family album to actually seeing your grandkids. Although I would suggest most of these calls are currently made on Skype anyway, so the shift isn't transformative.
The other audience is the Chatroullette crowd. I apologize if this shocks you, gentle reader, but people have been sharing naked pictures long before Congressman Anthony Weiner bought his first BlackBerry Curve. (Or was that a Bold?) Indeed compared to the sewer streams of pornography that flood out onto the Net each day, a one-on-one video chat between two consenting adults seems positively quaint. Although even here, I think the appeal is limited. Who wants to exchange sexy videos when your mom's thumbnail is in the same Window. Not me.
So there you have it. People with kids and perverts. Just remember to keep those calls straight.
Perhaps the real reason I am so down on video chat is that it's real-time, a type of communication that is quickly becoming obsolete in our culture today. Zuckerberg nodded to this when it described the service as not being "modal" in his talk today. He said the video chat would ring you, but you wouldn't have to answer it or stop what you are doing just because someone started a call. (Adding "Definitely your video camera is not turning on until you accept [a call]." Thanks!) If you are on Facebook, you will probably be writing, updating, linking, or otherwise multitasking. Accept the Video Call and you can only do one thing: stare at the screen and talk.
This simply isn't how most people want to communicate anymore. We don't want to watch live TV, we want to time-shift it and take out the commercials. We don't want to talk on the phone, we want a text message—not only abbreviated, but time-shifted as well. Real-time, one-on-one video communication isn't new, it is dated.
There is no reason Facebook shouldn't include it, the service does just about everything else. But I wouldn't call it "awesome."