Technology links friends

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November 2, 2007

9:29 AM

Almost every student uses AOL Instant Messanger to keep in touch with friends at the College, former high school classmates and significant others. But did you know there are other, more high-tech ways to stay in touch?

p. Skype is a downloadable internet program that features free IMs and computer-to-computer telephone calls between anyone who has the program.

p. “It’s really easy to set up and download. If I can do it, anyone can do it,” Jenny Hoover ’08, who studied abroad in Cambridge, U.K. last summer, said.

p. Many students at the College who go abroad depend on Skype or similar programs such as I-Ball Chat or AIM to stay in touch with their friends. All three programs offer the possibility of voice and conversations. “It was only 10 cents a minute to [phone] home from Europe, but that adds up,” Hoover said.

p. Katie McCown ’09, currently abroad in Essex, U.K., agreed. “Because Skype is free, as opposed to long distance calls on a cell phone, I can talk as long as I want,” she said. “If I didn’t have it, I would be stuck talking to them through AIM or e-mail because it costs too much to call the States on a mobile.”

p. Skype proves useful for students outside the United States. “I used Skype with my American friends who were abroad with me because calling between our cell phones there cost 30 cents a minute,” Hoover said.

p. Katie Corcoran ’08 used Skype while abroad in Salzburg, Austria last spring. She says she still uses the program “to keep in touch with my friends who are still in Europe, since they don’t have AIM.”

p. Corcoran also makes creative use of one of the games offered for free on Skype. “I play hangman with a friend from Germany over Skype because it helps him with his English,” Corcoran said.
Hoover advised students to set up Skype before leaving home, both on their own computers and on the computers of the people they are planning on talking to most. “There are no Best Buys in Europe and there are different computers over there,” Hoover said. “And once you get there, you just want to talk to people, not struggle with setting up your computer.”

p. A lesser-known aspect of Skype is that it can be used to cheaply call landline phones from a personal computer. This is useful for staying in touch with relatives who don’t want to work Skype or who don’t have computers.

p. This is exactly what McCown did. While Skype is most commonly used for IM and voice conversations, it can also be used to talk with others via webcam. “I downloaded Skype on my family’s computer before I left and they bought a webcam as well,” McCown said. “Whenever I talk to them, it’s almost like I’m at home because they can see me and I can see them.”

p. Despite the popularity of Skype, relying on technology to stay in touch does have its downside. Kurt Steinhouse ’08 studied abroad in Rome last semester, but didn’t have internet in his apartment. “I had to lug my laptop all the way to school to talk to people,” Steinhouse said.

p. In addition to this challenge, the internet at school wasn’t always reliable. “I didn’t have internet for two weeks after I got there,” he said. “I felt so disconnected from everyone.”

p. Corcoran reported a similar problem. “I’ve started to rely on [technology], so when my friend’s computer crashed I didn’t talk to her for like two weeks,” Corcoran said.

p. Another downside to Skype is the possibility of receiving IMs and phone calls from random people. “One time this guy from Egypt Skyped me and I’d never heard of him,” Corcoran said. “It’s really intrusive and I don’t answer calls like that.”

p. Corcoran also has a good friend who has been repeatedly Skyped by a man who lives in Mexico and uses the screename “Moist.” She admitted that she hadn’t installed privacy settings on her Skype account and that if she had done so, she might have prevented some of these random calls.

p. Hoover commented on the changes in communication brought about by technology. “The only sad thing about technology is that a lot of it gets lost, so you’ll never have it,” Hoover said, referring to e-mails and IMs that eventually disappear into cyberspace. “There’s something nice about a handwritten letter.”

p. Hoover currently uses the program to keep in touch with her boyfriend in St. Louis, Mo. “I have limited minutes on my cell phone, so we use Skype,” Hoover said.

p. Hoover also said that using a webcam through Skype is especially helpful because the added component of seeing who you are talking to makes that person feel a bit closer. “It’s nice to see someone if they’re far away,” Hoover said.

p. McCown agreed. “Seeing faces rather than just talking on cell phones really does make a difference while abroad,” she said. “It has also been really helpful in alleviating any homesickness I may have experienced initially.”

p. Nonetheless, the webcam is not without its challenges. Several students were embarrassed to admit their use of the webcam because people who are new to it think it sounds sketchy. “I hate the connotation with webcam,” Hoover said. People are always a little like ‘mmm?’”

p. In addition to social perception, webcamming makes one thing trickier that the phone does not: “You also want to look nice when you’re using the webcam. It’s difficult if you look awful,” Hoover said, referring to those bad hair days that don’t matter when talking to someone over the phone.

p. The overall feeling among students at the College is that technology such as Skype and the webcam is a blessing. “In a strange way, I’ve been able to stay in better contact with my family and friends [while abroad] than when I’m at William and Mary because I don’t actually feel so removed from their lives,” McCown said.

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