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.

The chocolate and peanut butter are mixed again: Using Trillian Astra with Meebo Widgets

A while back I wrote about how Meebo and Pidgin are like Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups. In that blog post I described how to use a plugin for Pidgin that would allow you to connect to your Meebo widgets through the Pidgin IM client. Well, for some reason, this stopped working for me quite some time ago. My Meebo widget wouldn’t display my online status, so folks received a message on all my web pages that I was not online, when in fact I was. I abandoned the Meebo/Pidgin method and used Digsby for about a year. Digsby is a client that has native widgets built in, and for the most part, it works pretty nice. However, Digsby had a habit of reducing my PC’s speed to a crawl, so I’ve always been on the lookout for another method. I recently got Pidgin to work again(sort of) with Meebo, but I encountered frequent crashes when someone would just land on my widget page.   I’ve had crashes with the Pidgin/Meebo setup before, and it’s quite annoying.   I have to have a dependable IM client to do my job, and the Pidgin/Meebo setup just wasn’t working out for me.   Enter Trillian Astra.

Trillian Astra is Cerulean Studios newest version of the popular multi-protocol IM client. I downloaded Astra about an month ago and set about to see if I could connect to the Meebo widget through Trillian Astra.   Once I figured out how to get it working (no plugins needed), Meebo connected wonderfully to the desktop client.   I’ve been using it ever since, and it’s worked great.   The magic of chocolate mixed with peanut butter is back, and boy is it good. If you’d like to set this up   and taste it for yourself, here is how I did it.

1.   First go and download Trillian Astra and follow the instructions for installation.   Trillia Astra requires you to set up a profile with them, as your information is stored on their server (much like Meebo or Digsby).   This allows you to install the client on multiple machines, but only have to set up your various screen names once.   This makes the client easy to use on your laptop, PC, and home machine without having to setup your profiles multiple times.

2.   Once you’ve set up a profile after installation, you can add your various Identities and Connections.     First, add a new connection as a Jabber/XMPP protocol, and put in your Meebo login information as “yourloginname”@meebo.org.

Enter your Meebo Username and password

Enter your Meebo Username and password

3. Click on the Settings button to make sure your settings are the same as the screenshot below.

Settings for the Meebo connection

Settings for the Meebo connection

4.   Finally, click on the Privacy link on the left side of the preference screen.   This is very important to do, otherwise you get annoying popup messages every time someone hits your widget. Make sure you check the box to allow all incoming requests.

Approve all incoming requests

Approve all incoming requests

5.   Once you complete all those steps, you’re ready to take IMs   as they come in from your Meebo widget.   Here’s what it looks like:

Using Trillian with a Meebo Widget

Using Trillian with a Meebo Widget

In the month that I’ve been using this, I have not had any trouble at all.   Folks may wonder why I don’t just use Meebo for all of my IM needs.   Even though Meebo is a great online service, I still appreciate having a dedicated desktop IM client.   I’m pretty good about updating my status when I’m not available (teaching, in a meeting, at the gym, getting coffee, etc) but occasionally I forget.   If you forget to make yourself unavailable before you leave your desk, then Trillian will automatically set your status to “Away” after a certain period of inactivity.   Meebo doesn’t do this, so if you forget to set your status before going to a two-hour meeting, that’s two hours that patrons or friends may think you’re ignoring their questions.   For the person who is constantly up and down from his/her desk, I believe that Trillian is the best IM option.

I hope you’ve found this guide useful.   If you have any tips or questions, please feel free to leave a comment on this post.   I’m curious to see if this setup works for others and would love to learn about others’ experiences with Trillian and Meebo. I’ve now got a hankering for a Reese’s, so I’m off to find a vending machine.   😉 Good luck and happy IMing!