So maybe this is why no one uses our Skype Reference Service

In his latest column in Time Magazine, Joel Stein writes why people don’t like video phones.

Even though Skype is the only one of all the cool gadgets that cartoons promised me would exist by 2010, people don’t seem nearly as excited as they should be. Only 34% of Skype calls even use video. And when Skype announced on Jan. 5 at the Consumer Electronics Show that we’ll soon have videophones on our televisions, everyone went right back to talking about which booths gave out the best key-chain lights.

 

OHIO Libraries Skype Reference

OHIO Libraries Skype Reference

We’ve been using Skype as a reference option for quite some time. At one point in time, people in library land were really hot about what we were doing with the service.  It had great potential, was free, and was easy enough for anyone to set up.  Despite the growth of Skype and its popularity on some television shows (Oprah and Who Wants to be a Millionaire) I can count on one hand the number of Skype calls we get each month.  The questions that we do get are almost always text/IM questions, which is something that can be handled by Meebo widgets and other popular IM services.  We almost never got questions with our Skype Kiosk, even after trying several different staffing models and user interfaces.  This past fall, we pulled the plug on our Skype Reference Kiosk, although we still offer Skype as an option for our general Ask-a-Librarian service. (Update 12/8/2011:  We no longer have Skype listed as a contact option on our website due to extremely low use).

In his article, Joel says that he likes to zone out or multitask when talking on the phone.  When you’re on the phone with someone, you can check your email, flip the TV channels, start up a video game, do the dishes, all while “listening” to what the other person has to say.  With video calling applications, you have to actually look at the person talking to you and actually pay attention.  This could be one reason why our Skype video reference service has not been popular.  It’s been my experience while helping students with IM questions is that they often take a while to respond after you have sent them a message or an answer.  It’s not that they are pondering what I have sent them with such deep thought that they are taking a long time to respond.  Generally they may be checking out the page that I sent them, while chatting with me, while answering a text, listening to music, checking out pictures on Facebook, IMing their non-librarian friends, and typing a paper.  Imagine dropping all of that fun stuff just to talk to a librarian face-to-face via video calling.  If our patrons wanted to call us with Skype video, they would have to change their communication styles.  In other words, they would have to be, like, attentive, or like, something, and like, do only one thing at once.  😉  Stein argues “as far as the full-contact listening that Skype requires, I don’t think we want that all that often from people who aren’t already in our house.”

Stein also mentions that people have shifted away from using the phone to even talk to each other.  “People are not only uninterested in Skype, we’re also not interested in talking on the regular phone. We want to TiVo our lives, avoiding real time by texting or e-mailing people when we feel like it.”  In other words, you text or email people because you don’t necessarily have to talk to a person right away, nor do you expect an answer right away.  Likewise, texting and  emailing puts you in control of when you respond, allowing you to shift the time of the conversation, to “talk” when you want.

I see people using Skype on a daily basis in our Learning Commons.  They’re usually, though not always, international students checking in with the folks back home.  They use the built-in camera on their laptops and headphone/mics to talk to friends an relatives. It’s a great way to check in with people, to let them know how you are doing, and to let them see you in person.  It’s the perfect way for your mom to tell you that “it looks like you’re not eating enough or getting enough sleep” without actually being in the same room.  It’s also a great way to check out your sister’s new haircut or to connect with a BFF at another school.  However, as much as we try, librarians are not going to be BFFs with our patrons, and maybe they don’t really want to see us when they talk to us.  I thought for a long time that maybe our service was ahead of the bleeding edge and that our patrons would eventually catch up as they adopted new technologies.  But even as much as Oprah, Ellen, or Meredith use the Skype video service and  promote it, and as much as Skype grows in popularity, our patrons may never be comfortable enough to want to call us face-to-face.

In many circles, our experiment with Skype video reference might be considered a failure.  At my library, we tend to try something while studying it, rather than study it for ages before attempting something new.  While we didn’t get the results we expected with our video kiosk experiment, setting up the service cost us almost nothing.  In the process, we learned about video calling software options, how to configure pages to close automatically with javascript,  discovered how flaky wireless connections and computer applications can be, and much more.  We also learned to be flexible, patient, and try different things to improve the service.   I’m sure others have learned through our experience as well, as my former colleague Char Booth has shared our Skype reference story through numerous presentations and publications.  I believe our experiences with the service have prepared us well for our next technology/reference endeavor (whatever that may be), and you can’t put a price on that knowledge.  Did the service fail?  It all depends on how you measure your return on investment.