Through a Webcam Darkly

Everyone knows that long-distance relationships suck. Kevin Nguyen finds that Skype makes them even worse.

Illustration by Hallie Bateman

A couple years ago, my parents announced that they were getting separated. And they broke the news over Skype.

Me, my younger brother, younger sister, and mom were gathered around a single laptop in the kitchen of our childhood home in Massachusetts. The four of us barely fit in the frame. Dad was by himself, sitting on his bed in Lake Forest, Illinois.

“Tell them,” he said.

My mother teared up quickly, and couldn’t stand seeing herself. She ducked out of the Skype window. She said something about how they tried their hardest, but couldn’t resolve their issues. My brother stormed off to his room. Mom also left the kitchen. My sister and I looked at each other and shrugged.

“Are you two okay?” my father asked.

“Yeah, we’re fine,” my sister answered. “Okay, uh, see you later Dad.”

And she closed the Skype window.

In the film Up in the Air, George Clooney plays a version of George Clooney who travels across the country to fire employees on behalf of their cowardly managers. His lifestyle is threatened when his company attempts to cut costs by firing people over videochat instead of in person. It’s a good movie, but it has a predictable lesson: videochat lacks the personal, human touch of a face-to-face interaction. I don’t necessarily disagree with that point, but I think it simplifies how videochat changes our relationship with other people.

Unlike the other ways we communicate — phone, email, text, tweet even — things like Skype try to imitate a real-life interaction with another person. And until we have holograms, it’s as close as you can get without actually being in the same room with someone else.

Every once in a while, you’ll see an ad for a new form of videochat (sometimes with Ellen Page). The world is closer when we can see each other. But I’m not convinced that because videochat is more realistic, because it gives more of an audio/visual experience, it really brings us any closer.

During college, my roommate Jon had a long-distance girlfriend, whom he’d be dating since high school. Throughout freshman year, they talked on the phone at least a couple hours a day, and around the beginning of sophomore year, they graduated to two shiny new iSight cameras.

After class one day, I came back to the room while Jon was at work and decided to take a nap. As I crawled into bed, I heard rustling on the other side of the room. I found Jon’s girlfriend still open on iChat, doing her homework, waiting patiently for her boyfriend to get back from work. I felt obliged to talk to her, in the same way I might make small talk with someone sitting in my room, doing her homework, waiting for her boyfriend to get back from work.

“Is the long distance thing easier now that you guys have the webcam?”

Katie thought about it for a moment. “It’s definitely a nice thing to have, but sometimes it just makes things even harder. Hanging up is really strange. How do you say goodnight when you’re still looking at each other?”

The summer after college, my then-girlfriend Elly went abroad to Beijing. The only place she could find a consistent internet connection was at a cafe near her apartment. I had a hard time visualizing Elly in China, because every time we Skyped, she was seated against the same wall. Occasionally, she would pick up her laptop and point the camera at her surroundings, but it would only reveal a world of pixelated white fuzz that I’m told is home to over a billion people.

Elly wanted to talk as often as possible, but I tried get out of every Skype date I could. I never had a good excuse, so I would make up a bad one. Elly thought I was being dodgy, but the truth is that I came to loathe Skype. Seeing her was just a cruel reminder that we weren’t in the same place.

Elly got back to the States in the fall, and we only saw each other a handful of times over the course of three months before we broke up. But I think we really tried.

She was still in school, and since we lived about half an hour away from each other, we continued to Skype regularly. We would watch episodes of Mad Men together while talking to each other over Skype. These are some of the fondest moments I have of the tail end of our relationship. And I realized that we communicated better over Skype than in person.

To be honest, I’m not sure what changed. Maybe our Skype interactions were so limited, it prevented us from confronting any real problems. Maybe it disguised the fact that we had grown apart. Most likely, it was all we had left.

I feel like I have to do justice to my parents by explaining that they got back together, only a few months after they officially separated. I was the last of my siblings to hear the good news, which came in the form of an email from my father:

She’s moving to Chicago, and very enthusiastically this time! Go figure! She’s coming here next weekend to look at apartments with me. All of a sudden, we’re madly in love again. You do have weird parents, Kevin. :-)

I couldn’t imagine my dad saying that in person, or over Skype. My father has always been a stern, inexpressive person. But maybe because email is so much less personal, it allowed him to be more earnest than he could ever be face to face.

Illustration by Hallie Bateman

Kevin Nguyen is a founding editor of The Bygone Bureau. His only marketable skill is an above-average knowledge of European geography. He has been useless since the introduction of the atlas in 1477. Reach him by email or follow his Twitter account.