Why Video Chat Has Not Caught On

“Front facing camera” has been a buzzword over the last year or so. The first phones to have one claimed superiority. The fact that first version of the iPad launched without one left people perplexed. When Apple introduced the iPhone 4 last summer with a front-facing camera and Facetime people got excited, and I never understood why.

Nearly a year later, I still know a lot of people who have never even tried FaceTime, let alone use it regularly. I have owned various Macs with built-in iSights for about 5 years and the only time I have used video chat is when my wife was in Europe and it was the least expensive (read: free) way to communicate. The reasoning behind this seems fairly simple, video chat, despite being revolutionary, is actually more similar to “old” ways of communicating as opposed to “modern” ways.

The primary way people communicate these days are short, quick bursts that stress convenience over timeliness. Most people under the age of 30 communicate primarily via SMS1. It’s quick and easy, and doesn’t require the other person to be available at the time the message is sent. I can send a message to someone with a question that doesn’t need an immediate answer and the person can get back to me at their convenience. The whole process requires less than 30 seconds of focus from each person and conversations can take place over minutes/hours as convenience allows.

The next level of communication are phone calls. Phone calls require more attention. First of all, both people have to be available at the same time and in a situation where a phone call is possible2. Phone calls bring with them the advantage of enabling much more information to be exchanged much quicker than a text message because most people can talk much faster than they can type on a phone. And while phone calls do require more consecutive time than a text message they can be done while driving or while doing other mindless tasks3 because most people can talk and listen while doing something, but can’t type/read and do other things.

Video chat is an interesting case. It brings almost no positives to day to day communication. It requires even more planning and attention. Not only do people have to be available at the same time but it has to be a place where video chat is feasible. The number of places where this is true is likely much smaller than those which a phone call is feasible. This is especially due to the fact that a lot of people still don’t have a smartphone, let alone one that has a front facing camera. And while a video chat can in theory be done “hands free,” conducting one while driving doesn’t make sense and is probably illegal. Also, it would be difficult4 to conduct one while doing another task (like laundry, etc.). Essentially a video call requires a person to sit in one place and focus on the call.

In our ADD society, focusing on just one thing for that long is just too much time and effort for the way that most people like to communicate regularly. Sure there are edge cases. International travel, families that live in separate states/countries and things like that, but if I want to talk to my friend about our weekend plans or discuss the disgraceful White Sox I am not going to video chat them. And I haven’t even addressed the fact that video chat also requires you to be “presentable”5 in most cases.

The bottom line is that video chat sucks all of the convenience out of communicating with modern technology and provides little to no benefit in most cases. This is why I don’t understand the obsession with front-facing cameras and what phones do/don’t have them. I think if you ask most people with an iPhone 4 how many times they have used FaceTime you will confirm my suspicions.

  1. a.k.a. text messaging []
  2. Obviously someone in a meeting or at work may not be able to have a conversation []
  3. e.g. folding laundry, loading the dishwasher, other household chores []
  4. And probably silly []
  5. The definition of presentable obviously varies from person to person []