“It is an interesting question — what one tries to do, in writing a letter — partly of course to give back a reflection of the other person.” So wrote tireless correspondent Virginia Woolf to her friend Gerald Brenan, on October 4, 1929. Now all it takes to capture an accurate reflection of someone far away is a Skype account. This raises another interesting question — what are we trying to do when we Skype?
Skype is the most popular and sexiest form of VoIP, or Voice over Internet Protocol — a technology that allows any computer with a broadband Internet connection to act as a telephone. Skype was created in 2003 by the same Danish and Swedish entrepreneurs and Estonian software developers who created Kazaa (a file-sharing program similar to Napster). Since then, Skype has taken the communications world by storm: as of April 2008, it had more than 309 million registered accounts.
Its popularity is no mystery: anyone can download the software for free, and talk to anyone else with Skype, anywhere in the world, also for free. This includes the option of video conferencing. (Skype makes most of its money from people who “SkypeOut,” buying credit that lets them Skype land lines or mobiles for as little as 2.1 cents a minute.)
The technology has created a wave of Skype Love, which means millions of romantic partners around the world can live in different cities, countries, and time zones and not actually be separated, as long as they have a computer with an Internet connection, a microphone, and a webcam. The sound quality is not always the best — it ranges from a cut above the telephone to echoey or garbled — but there is something comforting in its retrograde tinniness (like jazz on a crackly LP). And who can argue with no long-distance charges and no maintenance fees?
For the past year and a half, I’ve depended on Skype to stay in touch with my girlfriend, a writer and translator who has been based in Vilnius, Lithuania, while I move around from Canada to Europe to the Middle East to, most recently, the Caucasus, doing research for a new book. In a Skypeless world, we might have been less inclined to hang in there, but now separation is less challenging. To be able to see her, and for her to see me, is more satisfying than a telephone call, email, instant message, or letter; the silences are more comfortable, the flow of conversation more natural. The image of my girlfriend’s face and the familiar environment — her piles of poetry, her thick Lithuanian dictionary, a white tunic she bought in Rajasthan — conjure up so many other sensory associations (her smell, her touch) that sometimes I feel we’re in the same room. It’s a strange and modern feeling: to be so intimate and yet so far apart.
According to Skype’s “Users Online” status, there are millions of us out there at any given moment of the day, sitting in front of our computers for two, three, sometimes ten hours at a time, gazing into the pixellated eyes of our beloved. (So far, people have Skyped for more than 100 billion minutes.) Obviously,this makes being apart less lonely. But has it brought people closer? Does it make us better lovers? Does sitting in front of a webcam free us up to talk more intimately? And what the hell do we talk about so often for so long?
Me: How’s it going?
She: It’s going.
A long pause. A really long pause — not awkward, just adjusting to Skype Reality: volume, screen angle, the pleasure of seeing.
Me: You look really nice today.
She: You, too. Did you shave?
(When I’m wearing headphones, my lover’s voice comes into my consciousness in stereo. Her soft sound surrounds me. I see her image on my laptop screen. The video allows me to detect certain details in her face that you wouldn’t be able to pick up on the phone. A particular glance denotes a bad day, a poor night’s sleep, something on her mind.)
She: You missed a spot.
There is something old-fashioned and romantic about this new connection. With couples who have just met, there is an undercurrent of lost courting rituals: people are forced to talk and get to know each other without immediately jumping in the sack. Skype also creates an intimacy of focus that’s missing in a café or bar. The Skyper is forced to look at his partner, undistracted (unless he’s busy surfing the Net), and to listen closely to her words; it could be argued that this form of long-distance connection is more intense than face-to-face conversation. Tyee Bridge, a Vancouver writer who used Skype to speak to his partner every day during a month-long separation, concurs: “[Because Skype has] a bit of a delay . . . [it] makes you talk more deliberately, and not respond so quickly to what the other person is saying.” Skype encourages us to be present, to get to know each other, and become close through conversation. As a Skype forum member writes, “Technology doesn’t just speed up information, it speeds up love!”
But accelerated love still presents a problem: as the mind races forward to embrace a lover, the body is left behind. The closer you get on Skype, the more you miss the feel of someone’s skin, their weight beside you in bed. So near, so in your ear, yet so far away. It can be incredibly frustrating. Several months into our physical separation, my girlfriend and I found ourselves joking that we were not having a relationship with each other but with our computers (sometimes I actually kissed my screen and hugged my keyboard).
At other times, I found myself emotionally confused. First, there was the issue of what to talk about. Speaking long distance by phone doesn’t present this problem, because it costs money. So when you’ve run out of things to say, you don’t just breathe into the receiver, you say goodbye and hang up. But because Skype is free, and if my partner is available and so am I, the logic goes, we should be talking . . . and talking . . . Isn’t that what a relationship is about — communication?
Zoe Hart, a mountain guide based in Chamonix, France, who is more on the road than at home, spoke to me about overusing Skype. “Skype makes people think they’re not actually away from their partners,” she said on her way to a climb in Alaska. “People Skype each other every day and think they’re still together. Reality becomes confused. You do not accept that you’re in a long-distance relationship.”
I know what she means. Even when there is nothing to say, I find it difficult to say goodbye.
She: I need to get going.
She: I have to get ready for work.
Me: You don’t want to talk to me?
She: I’m going to be late.
Me: You have an hour still.
She: It’s not like we’re really saying anything important right now. Let’s talk later, and we’ll have more to talk about.
Me: I was just about to say something important.
She: Okay. What do you want to say?
Me: No. I can’t.
She: What do you mean you can’t?
Me: The moment’s gone.
She: Oh, God. Tell me what you wanted to say.
Me: No, no, no.
She: Why the hell not?
Of course I have nothing to say. It’s just that I find it difficult to re-enter the ordinary boredom of my real life. I call this the “Skype Get a Grip Factor.” When it came time to get on with our day-to-day lives at the end of a call, I’d realize I was not in the same room as my partner, but separated by thousands of miles. I found it difficult to return to the tedious and unnerving everyday. I was neither alone, with the compensations of perfect solitude, nor with my warm-blooded partner.
It was in the middle of the fourth month apart that we discovered a novel approach: Scrabulous and Skype. The secret to sustaining virtual love may be . . . to get more virtual. Spending time playing online Scrabble meant that my girlfriend and I didn’t have to just talk on Skype; we could hang out, drink wine or tea, listen to music together. The emotional muck of “relationship” conversations could be avoided, and the tedium of “How was your day, sweetie? ” could be replaced by an X here, an O there, and some good, healthy competition.
The non-verbal approach is popular among Skypers. In one YouTube interview, a couple talks about how they sleep with their laptops in bed, each under the gaze of their respective cameras. The woman in this video explains how she once woke up her boyfriend when she was having a nightmare. He adds that she likes being able to see him go to the bathroom in the middle of the night. The couple also talked about cooking together, with the camera on, logged into Skype. Everything but the epidermis is shared.
Which brings us to Skype Sex. A friend wrote me, “[Skype] added a bit of erotic juice to things . . . We discovered new possibilities for long-distance intimacy . . . Suffice to say we both laughed a lot afterwards. I’m not sure why. Embarrassment. So wrong it’s right . . . Like you’re slipping a quarter into a skyscraper telescope or midway peep show.” American sex columnist Dana Olsen puts it slightly more crassly: “When used correctly, [Skype] is the best practical-turned-sexual invention since handcuffs . . . The beauty of Skype sex . . . is you can pretend your girlfriend is a porn star . . . except you get to talk to your favorite video girl afterward.” The ’60s was the generation of love. I belong to the generation of mutual masturbation virtuosos.
The problem for me with Skype is that the likeness is so real it makes me hungrier for the real thing. Yes, there is intimacy — but none of it is physical. I’m not only talking about sex: I mean what happens when two people are in a room together. The middle-of-the-night conversations. A shared glass of water. Sweat on the pillow. Even the arguments are better; one doesn’t feel the need to resolve a disagreement before the other logs out. In physical reality, you can let the unformed thoughts hang in the air — and bodily communication without words can say so much.
Of course, I can’t help but wonder if more people want to be separated, if we prefer being virtually connected to physically cohabiting. There are certain advantages to being in a Skype relationship. Couples don’t have to contend with their different standards of cleanliness when they only meet in cyberspace; they don’t have to fight over who’s going to take out the garbage or who forgot to return the DVD. And while they might not have a warm body to snuggle up to at night, they know they are still there for each other. Virtually.
Skype may not be taking our communication into the future so much as revisiting the past — the Romantic era, when snail mail arrived several times a day. We court, we pine, we imagine our lover beside us.
In another century, John Donne wrote these lines to his wife:
Though I must go, endure not yet
A breach, but an expansion,
Like gold to aery thinness beat.
Skype encourages us to sustain and possibly deepen our relationships across vast distances. But in learning to be a better Skype lover, perhaps it is best to heed Donne’s advice: it’s healthy to allow enough room for a certain amount of longing. And to have some time to be alone.