My brother likes to joke that the computer is my best friend, because it’s often sitting open in front of me. Sadly, I spend a lot of time with my hard-wired best friend (a small Hewlett Packard laptop, owned by my dad).
Since moving to the United States without the English Husband, the computer has enabled me to keep in touch with the friends and relationships I’ve left behind. I honestly don’t know what I’d do without it. Sometimes I wonder if it’s actually keeping me from living in a world of three dimensions. I watch television with it propped open; we share meals together while I skim my emails; and we go for coffee together weekly.
I return to it several times a day, almost hoping it will have some sort of surprise in store for me – maybe it will find me a job, maybe it will deliver some significant news. When I was drinking the other evening in the company of my computer, I’m afraid I nearly caused its early death when a glass of Californian Syrah dropped all over its sleek black frame. Unlike a human being, it said nothing to me in anger. To my intense happiness, it’s still in the world of the living.
One thing my box-like best friend has undoubtedly allowed me to do is to see my husband almost daily. Skype has most certainly changed long-distance relationships. There was a time, not many years ago, when a long-distance relationship would mean speaking to someone on a crackly phone line and enduring frustrating time delays that would make your conversation stilted and hard to follow. Or there was ordinary mail – romantic but slow. If I relied on mail to sustain my relationship, I think I would have given up by now and started talking to some of my old wedding pictures.
In a funny twist of fate, my mother is also a Skype widow. My dad is working on the east coast while she stays in California, in the family home. They also speak every day on Skype and have been living like this for many years.
According to recent statistics, there are 31 million users of Skype (as of Jan 2012), with the average conversation lasting 27 minutes. The average Skype user spends 100 minutes a month on the technology platform, and it has a 8.1m paying customers. Microsoft acquired Skype for $8.5bn, with Skype’s revenue in 2010 amounting to just over $406m.
I wonder how many of these Skype subscribers have partners living thousands or hundreds of miles away. How many relationships wouldn’t survive the distance if video chatting hadn’t become the norm? It’s impossible to find meaningful statistics on this, but Men’s Health published an article stating that Skype actually improves long-distance relationships. The editors haven’t done a whole lot of research, but they have quoted a professor of communications at Ohio State University to support their eye-catching claim. Prof. Stacie Powers led a study called Computers in Human Behavior that found people get less frustrated discussing emotional topics over webcam.
Her theory is that small time delays actually work in your favor, because participants in a conversation have to pay extra attention to nonverbal cues such as facial expressions and tone of voice instead of being solely focused on the emotionally charged topic.
I know that when you are talking to someone over webcam, it’s extremely easy to cut off the conversation when you don’t like the way its headed. When you are living with someone, the retreat is harder to achieve. In the former case, you just push a button to end the chat; in the latter you need to leave the house or exercise extreme self-restraint. I don’t argue as much with my husband these days, because we simply don’t spend much time in the company of each other.
On the other hand, my best friend and I spend too much time together, and I’ve started to get a bit resentful. Like any friend, I am starting to become a bit annoyed about all the demands it makes on my time. On bad days, I feel like the computer is an anchor around my neck; on good days, I feel like it’s liberating me and making the world smaller. How do you resolve these two conflicting emotions? How do I wean myself off this machine?
I don’t know, but I just wish innovative technology wasn’t so damn addictive. I’ve got a life to live, preferably not through the computer screen.