Why Skype?

2 Apr

Why does someone ‘Skype’? – assuming, of course, that one will allow a noun to be used as a verb. Is it merely to see another? Is there some special value in seeing? Is seeing better, say, than writing, instant messaging, texting? ‘Skyping’ needs to be understood, it seems to me, in terms of the reasons people have for such communications. This seems obvious – a truism. But what are those reasons? How many are there? What does it mean to say that people have reasons? Does one always need a reason to Skype? Surely some human relationships are such that no reasons are needed to call. One Skypes ‘just because’.

This playful preamble sets up the purpose of this blog. It proposes that there are two basic ways of treating acts of communication between people. One view, grossly speaking, looks at those acts in terms of theoretical constructs devised by commentators external to those acts; the observer’s view if you like. A whole plethora of such theories can be noted – from Media Theory approaches right the way through to, let us say, Speech Act Theory. All, in various ways, look at what people do when they communicate through an external theoretical lens. This approach has all sorts of merits, not least of which is its fecundity: one could write book after book attempting to summarise all the currently fashionable theories accounting for communication, for example, and doing so would attest to that very fertility. (Indeed lots of books, some of which I discuss below).

The other approach, much less often deployed, ignores ‘external theory’ and examines, instead, what those in acts of communication themselves do that gives those acts of communication the shape and form they have. Here too there will be found things that look like ‘theoretical orientations’, concepts and interpretative tools as well as much more prosaic ‘maxims of conduct’ but these are participant’s own theories, tools and concepts, not those of the observer. This is the act of communicating from within. It is, for what of an academic sounding phrase, the endogenous that this second view examines.

For those familiar with the first view, this second perspective can make them very ill at ease – it can often seem that this second view privileges lay theorising as much as expert theorising; it appears, in their understanding, to place science alongside ‘common sense’, the parochial with the widespread, the objective.  Those who are more familiar with this second view know, however, that such a concern is egregious, and that the purpose of looking at how people themselves reason is not to contrast that with some other presumed order of reason – a scientific one say. The purpose is simply to gather empirical evidence about how the world works given that that world is evidently accomplished by those who live in it – and they are not in a sense expert in anything other than in their own doings.

This summary is obviously simple, and the contrast necessarily elides important distinctions. But that said, this second view can be said to be, broadly speaking, the view of Harold Garfinkel, as espoused in his seminal book, Studies in Ethnomethodology (1967). This view, in turn, has echoes in or, rather, has echoes of, the analytical philosophy of Wittgenstein, particularly his Philosophical Investigations (1958), and the attempts to bring a social scientific application of his views by, for example, Peter Winch in The Idea of a Social Science (originally 1958).

Be that as it may, what I am interested in is exploring the ordinary ways that ordinary people do Skype. Presumably, and picking up the point from the first paragraph, what one will find, if one does look, is that there is some logic behind this use of Skype – this ordinariness. One imagines too that the ‘reasons for Skyping’ will be, somehow, incarnate in what is being sought for in Skyping – something about the intentions of those involved, the relationships articulated and so forth, will be articulated. These concerns may be part of the set of reasons that help describe and explain the actions in question – the choice to make a call, the topics selected, the things looked at. One imagines as part of this, as well, that concerns to do with rights to look (at another) will be found in the acts themselves. All this and more will make up the why of Skyping.


Of course, this is all conjecture; one is imagining there is a why here or a set of whys – although one can hardly claim to be totally unfamiliar with the topic. After all, who hasn’t Skyped sometime or other? The real question is what evidence has been brought to the about this practice, evidence, losely speaking of a scientific kind. I am thinking about what can one say ‘evidentially’ about what people do do in and through Skype?

One of the first things one might say about the evidence is that it seems a bit curious. There are, for example, some remarkable statistics and figures about Skype. It is often noted that Skype is used for approximately 35% of the calls that small business make, for example. Surveys by Skype itself suggest that it is also known and used by virtually everybody, as indeed I have just remarked. It would appear that Skype is then part of normal life, part of the fabric of living in much the same way that mobile phones are, tablets and PCs. It is commonplace. The name of the product has now even become eponymous with the use of any and all video connections – running Skype or otherwise (there are now numerous competing technologies). We live inside a world in which Skyping is part of our vocabulary. As Xerox came to be verb, so too Skyping, as I noted at the outset. And yet despite this, there is no large literature on Skyping, on the connections that Skype enables and sustains. This is one of the reasons why I say the evidence is curious.

That this is so is all the more startling given how much research – and how many books – were written reporting the widespread adoption of a prior communications technology that became equally ubiquitous some years ago. Katz’s Magic in the Air (2006) was published about the same time as some of my own books, Wireless World (2002) and Inside Text (2006). How mobile phones were altering the fabric of being in touch was a considerable scholarly concern at that time. And, yet, today, when Skype is similarly ubiquitous, no such equivalents are to be seen – as far as I am aware, there are hardly any books on Skype and everyday life. The recent publication of Miller and Sinanan’s Webcam (2014) comes close to  the topic,  and it is the exception that proves the rule.

Perhaps there is a reason for this, and this might have to do with what Skype affords. Whereas the mobile altered the mechanics of availability in ways that some said altered the socio-spatial geometries of the world (see for example Massey’s For Space, 2005), Skype seems to let people communicate as they would do ordinarily, naturally, without the corrupting intermediation of technology. After all, it lets people see those they are talking with. One of the catch phrases of my own company, even if it is infelicitous, says it all: natural interaction. Is it in this sense that Skype is uninteresting – because it’s not strange; being normal, the natural way of communicating, albeit over distance?

It is not entirely clear. Whatever the reason for the apparent dearth of research this doesn’t mean that Skype isn’t addressed in the literature. It is, but when Skype is considered it is treated as an element, and often only a minor one at that.  Madianou and Miller’s Migration and New Media (2012) is one such inquiry. (Miller and Sinanan’s Webcam offers a more sympathetic interest in the participant’s experiences and  so is closer to the view I propose,  but is constrained by its method: it doesn’t report the actualities of Skyping, but interviews about Skype – this produces different sorts of insights). Here we learn how contemporary international – or transnational – employment migration trends are resulting in many families finding that ‘Mum’ works and lives far from home – abroad no less. This is particularly so for Filipino families, the book’s chosen community and culture, where Madianou and Miller show how Skype is used by mothers working in London (and elsewhere, though London is the primary site) to keep in touch with their families back in the archipelago. The book explains that these connections are highly sought after – desired if you will – because these mothers are remote from family members that are often quite young. It’s these mothers’ kids who are being looked after by grandparents and aunts. Madianou and Miller explain that it is via Skype that the young children in question can come to recognise what their mother looks like; Mum thus comes to be more than a mere idea conveyed in the written word or through the sound of speech on a phone. Seeing Mum via Skype lets Mums be recognised when they come home, as they walk out of the airport gates into the arms of children who no longer need prompting by aunts who in the past might have had to say ‘there she is’ – as if the lady in question were a stranger. Mothers find they relish this recognition: they delight in it. It negates the grief of not been recognised at all.

Yet it is perhaps in this respect that Skype is doing something obvious yet something that it is not best treated as ‘natural’, and hence worth little commentary as I suggest. For it seems, according to Madianou and Miller’s evidence, that Skype gives greater importance to the visual in social relations. Many prior communications emphasised the auditory and the textual. The valence of Skype, of Skyping (certainly in in the context Madianou and Miller report), is not merely that seeing allows recognition, it is rather that it brings an erotic element to family connections. By erotic I mean a concern in this regard for the sensual aspects of the body and all that ensues: through Skyping, mothers can feel the adoring gaze of their loved ones; they can delight in knowing that the one they cuddle at the airport has not been told to cuddle but does so since they see ‘It is Mum!’

This echoes the work of Peters who argues, in Speaking into the Air (1999), that the widespread prevalence of vision-delivering tools in contemporary communication technology is making the body more important than the mind when people seek to communicate. It is shifting expectations and the experiences that people are delighting in. Seeing has become part of the requisite of the modern form of life, where distributed, fragmenting families solidify themselves not through articulating what they think, but by letting each other recognise each other’s shape, their form, their body. This is altering the connection between place and emotion and the visual. To see Mum is the sought for value; on contrast, to say, receive a letter lets one understand Mum’s subjectivity – what Mum thinks and feels ‘inside’. This is different.  Indeed one could suggest that this contrast is even larger than this: whereas once a letter would be treated by the recipient as a gift of sorts, today the relationship between sender and recipient, absent and present person, is altered. It is recognising someone on their return after a long absence that is the gift that is sought for. To see is the mechanism that allows recognition; we become our pictures (or at least as we are seen through Skype’s codecs), not our thoughts or inner reflections, our looks become us, not our words.

What to say, what to see

Yet if this is so, what is the form of action in and through a Skype call? What is the gaze that seems so vital to mother’s made of, how is it constituted? How do people separated by distance come to manage the problem of ‘looks’, a name for what it might be that is recognised when one see’s another? How does one Skype so as to learn what another looks like? Migration and New Media doesn’t answer these questions – detailed as they are, obvious though they might be. This is not a fault in the book since Skype is not really the concern, it’s what its use points to that is. And that is essentially to do with contemporary anthropological theory: abstract notions of family, and relatedly, abstracted notions of obligation and absence and their connection to ‘capitalism’.

I should say again, I am not being critical of such an approaches – one that delves into empirical matters to service theoretical topics. I am saying there is another way of examining what happens in and through Skype where the burdens of theory are not so great or invasive. One might add that though this other approach might not encumbered by theory, what it uncovers might nevertheless be rich and evocative, suggestive, in the empirical shape of the material uncovered, the complexities of modern lives where the work of being in touch its experiential consequences so profound. It may also supplement and even echo some of the more theory-driven research.

There are now beginning to appear some papers that take the view I am interested in and indeed some of these do provide a neat resonance with studies such as Madianou’s and Miller. These studies have looked at, for example, the opening sequences of Skype communications, others at what happens within them, whether this relates to greetings and introductions or topics and agitations, even problems with the technology – ‘troubles  talk’ in the encompassing sense.

Take Sunakawa and Bono’s paper on greetings in Skype that was presented at the Skype and the Gaze of Family and Friendship conference here at MSR in the summer of 2014. Though one would think that Skype connections would begin with a summons answer sequence – one standard format of openings in face to face conversation – this research shows that in practice many Skype calls are part of already underway communications. Skype calls don’t start talk, they are part of ongoing tele-mediated acts; part of talk that is ongoing not in some gross sense – as in ‘I am always in contact‘ – but in real, adjacent turn-taking that happens to be across different technological platforms. In the families Sunakawa and Bono studied, SMS, instant messaging and Facebook postings are used to co-ordinate Skype calls right up to the time that Skyping commences.

To see, in this context, is to see at the right time. This does not mean merely and only when the technology is set up to do so, when the Skype clients have been switched on and connections made to the Internet and so forth. Rather they commence when the parties themselves are ready to be seen and to see. This means, and this evokes Madianou and Miler’s book, when the participants have, say, the kids at hand and hence ‘ready to pick up and show’, or when new clothes and jewellery are nearby so that these same kids can pick up and show these to the remote party. These items may be gifts that they have received from the remote other – their Mum say. It’s not that they have them that is the issue, it is showing them that is. This is why Sunakawa and Bono argue that Skype is like theatre; for, like actors, users of Skype require some warming up and preparatory work, but here the actors and the audience are as one, the crucial thing is to get them all ready for the performance itself.

Licoppe and Morel, at the same conference, go even further and show how these openings and greetings becoming multi-staged. They consist not just of the pre-call arrangements, on SMS, Facebook or whatever, but then, once a Skype connection is made, an initial greeting, when a call starts, and then a further, subsequent greeting when everyone is arranged so as to do what the participants themselves sometimes call a ‘proper greeting’ – as in ‘We are all here now, say hello everyone!’.  Getting to a place where the body of those concerned when Skype connections are sought and undertaken requires, then, lots of work and joint moral commitment, an interactional order between both parties, caller and receiver.

Part of this work, if work it is, entails not only getting things ready to see, but how to deal with opportunities for greetings that are serendipitous, or at least sometimes staged so as that they seem to be. For Licoppe and Morel not only report on the multi-staged form of openings (see also Rilieu, 2014), they also report on what they call greetings which are massively bound up with the seeing of others, when it is the actual act of seeing that becomes the salient aspect of the greeting. As it happens the French have a word for this: they are called coucou moments. Coucou is a vernacular for saying ‘See you’ when seeing is very much the thing being alluded to – when someone sees a friend on the other side of the metro station, say, when someone eventually finds a person in a busy public place even though they have been talking with them on the phone as they seek them out. Coucou is like a word that one would use in the family game of hide and seek at that moment when someone is found – though of course, there is no English vernacular for it – ‘found you!’ hardly does it.

In their studies of Skyping, Licoppe and Morel find that coucouing tends to take over the orientation of users. People make a point of not being seen at the very start of a Skype call, for example, only to give greater gravity, more importance and fun to the actual moment when they are seen, somewhat after the commencement of the connection – this is the coucou moment. When a coucou has been done, delayed or otherwise, Licoppe and Morel show that participants talk about it. People note such things as what might have been peculiar about the seeing in question (‘oh you look fat’ was one of the surprisingly unendearing phrases that one Parisien said to another she had just coucoued in Licoppe and Morel’s data). When such a moment is reached prematurely it creates fluster and giggles; when it is deliberately done for a subsequent time (somehow, but I leave the reader to imagine how), it becomes a focal point, a topic itself, like the thread of double entendres in jokey conversations, a coucou leading to another in an flush of ‘seeings’. Licoppe and Morel also report those coucou moments that are experienced not as constructed by the participants but as conjured by the ineffable effects that poor quality data volumes and the inefficiency of Skype codecs produce. Here the coucou word is used to describe the disappearing of the remote other, a disappearing soon followed by a reappearing – as if callers are digital ghosts that suddenly appear and vanish in the world as seen on the screen, a world that is evidently different from the world as is.

What one finds, if one examines Skyping then, is not merely that ‘looks’ are things that can be learnt through Skyping, that how another is to be recognised can be as it were, taught. What one finds is that the skill that gets glossed as the ability to recognise another is actually subordinate to the work entailed in Skype user’s capacity to engage in jointly produced orientations to physical display, ones that are not about just their own faces and bodies, about looks so to speak, but include any combination of faces and bodies and other real objects – presents and ornaments, cats and dogs, grandmothers and grandchildren. Much more is seen than merely looks in Skype. At the same time, seeing within Skype is bound up with the organised, sequential patterning of these acts of joint looking, acts that sometimes repeat themselves, and which sometimes allow new components to appear in the lookings – new views of the bodies in question, new arrivals who coucou out of the blue, so to speak.


There is other research in the same vein. Space precludes further consideration of it. Suffice to say that those papers that look at Skyping praxiologically, at what it entails for those who use it, show that it allows ‘seeings’ and ways of fabricating conversation that are bound up with these seeings. For want of a label one might say that Skyping involves the social production of seeing types and the consequences of these on topic management. These types and their implicated topics are articulated in and through elaborate arrangements of bodies, places and things through time; they are inevitably focused on and through the camera and the screen, on what these allow to be seen. It is through the articulations of people, things, time and seeing types that the particular vocabulary of Skype comes to have its valence, even if that vocabulary is appropriated from other settings – as in the case of coucou moments.

Coming to learn the looks of others then, the heart of Madianou and Miller’s thesis, turns out to require work that Madianou and Miller ignore (since their interest is in what that work allows). The evidence of this work, just sketched, entails as I say making seeings occur at just the right moments and ensuring somehow that what is seen at those times is what ought to be seen by all involved. One sees together on Skype, one doesn’t see from one point and view or from another, in other words. Skyping involves fabricating a joint seeing, an orientation of collaborative interest.

One might formulate all of these features in the following maxims of ‘user conduct’ or orientations. When people skype they-

  1. ‘Ensure that what I show is what the other sees, so that what they see is seen such that they notice the things I want them to’;
  2. ‘I do this in patterned ways so that my sought-for seeings can be echoed in their subsequent turns; first me doing a coucou and then the other doing one of their own, and so forth’.
  3. ‘I do this so as to make Skyping a joint endeavour where things to be seen are agreed – so that Skyping is something we do together.’

The way I have expressed these maxims makes them seem awkward, ponderous almost. That is not how Skype is used, though. What I am saying is that people don’t just look at each other, at either end of the Skype connection. They come to see together when seeing here means looking with agreed and mutually intelligible intentions – that they in effect agree ways of seeing together, of looking in ways that both or all on a call understand and orient to. I think these ways have a kind of logic to them, or rather that there are number of logic types to be found if one looks – like the logic of coucouing.  Key to all, however, is an orientation that has an interrogative stance, a way of looking that emphasises the seeking of things to notice (through seeing) and the seeing of things thereby to talk about. And always this is jointly produced: this work is collaborative; people do this together even as they take turns individually. One looks to see what to do in a Skype call, to see what to talk about, to see how to continue, but one does this together.

Given this, one might suggest that Skyping is effortful. It demands the management of topic and concerns through the skilful use of seeing types and sequential display of objects for view. One would imagine that fitting Skype into the natural rhythms of already busy daily lives is thus intimately connected to the intensity of the experience, this effortfulness, if this is the right label. Presumably also, the effortfulness of Skype is at once its problem and its appeal: if someone (or persons) has or have the energy, the prospect of a Skype call might entice them and they will offer their engaged attention willingly. If they don’t have that vitality, they might resist the beckoning of a Skype ringtone, the summons in an SMS, the scheduled logging in articulated through a Facebook posting. Perhaps they may communicate nevertheless, but will choose less forthright modalities of doing so. Perhaps also it is this that accounts for why the scheduling activities take the form they do, with Skyping being in the middle of prior acts of communication that help set up this demanding moment.

The point of noting these matters is that it allows us to understand that judgements about whether to Skype or not are bound to the work of seeing and noticing, and that this is the work of being family and friends across distance, when those connections are articulated in and through Skype. It doesn’t matter whether the family in question consists of kids in the Philippines and Mothers in London or, say, two friends in the suburbs of Paris. Wherever they are, whosever they are, whatever their relation, there is a logic to the engagements they make through Skype, a purpose articulated in doing so. This logic has a particular kind of meaning and delivers a special kind of enchantment. Seeing is central to it, but not because this seeing is somehow resonant of the seeing as a natural feature of face to face conversation but because, in Skype, seeing becomes the business, the purpose and the fun of communication – for it is here that seeing becomes the thing looked for in the talking.  This is the grammar of Skype. This is part of the everyday vocabulary of being in touch.


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Garfinkel, H. (1967) Studies in Ethnomethodology, Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

Harper, R. (2013) Texture: human expression in the age of communications overload, MIT Press, Boston.

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Sunakawa, C. & Bono, M.  (2014) ‘Greetings in family and friend’s conversations through webcams’, in: Skype and the Gaze of Family and Friendship, Conference Proceedings, Microsoft Research. Cambridge, June.

Tanney, J. (2013) Rules, Reason and Self-Knowledge, Harvard University Press, Harvard.

Winch, P. (1958) The Idea of a Social Science, Routledge, London.

Wittgenstein, L. (1958) Philosophical Investigations, (trans Anscombe), New York, Macmillan.


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