In theory, Skyping is simple, inexpensive handy video technology for doing things like video chats with friends or remote media interviews, even given the occasional slowdowns due to bandwidth hogs upstream hungrily downloading ear and eye candy. Recently though, at the worst possible time, the crap hit the fan. It started when I had to buy a new laptop.
I hate buying new electronics, especially computers. Too many price and function comparisons. Too much net surfing to get the best deal. Then there’s the daunting issue of learning—always a dicey proposition—how a new system functions with updated operating systems and applications. Which brings me to Skype 5.80.158, the app’s latest version. I had a Kafkaesque trial run a few weeks ago on my desk top.
All systems appeared to be go when I received a phone call from a Chicago TV news station to interview me to on the topic of celebrity, specifically connected to the Oscar’s “red carpet” hoopla and fan zaniness "George Clooney, I want your baby."
Celebrities and fans. I typically hit this one out of the park. But not today. Today the park hit me.
After the telephone pre-interview wherein the producer makes sure I talk authoritatively, without jargon, and in quotable sound bites (Yes I can), I set up my in-home “Skype studio,” adjust lighting, move a chair, cover a window, check the webcam image, stash the dog, and await the appointed interview time.
Five minutes before air time they call via Skype. I answer. They speak. I reply. Good to go -- but for one thing. No video.
“What seems to be the problem?” the engineer says. I run through all the tricks and possible solutions I can think of, muttering obscenities at each failure. Nothing works. This is a time for PANIC. I do, the engineer doesn't. He just waits. Condescendingly. “Sixty seconds and counting,” he informs me.
The engineer assumes the problem is at my end. So do I. I’m intropunitive, into self- blame, at least when it comes to media technology snafus. He interrupts my headlong dash to Nothingsville, “Sorry, we’ll have to do it by phone, Dr. Fischoff…” he said, emphasizing the “Dr.,” with just the hint of exasperation in his voice. "We’ll throw your picture up and you’ll talk over it.”
Deflated, I sat there in a sustained “rattled mode” as the anchor introduced me, “We have on the phone Dr. …” The engineer? He moved on, guilt-free. That Cretin!
The interview went…okay. I hate okay.
Whatever used to be sufficient to Skype a media interview had clearly changed. I had done a totally successful New York Times TimesCast video interview via Skype in October. It was on media effects of showing audiences footage of the murder of Lybia’s President Gaddafi. The Times people successfully handled the whole technology fine-tuning thing on both ends. Why the difference this time? “Maybe because it was a Fox affiliate,” I muttered to my dog. She wasn’t buying it. “It’s your fault,” I heard her think as she exited my “Skype set.”
I Skyped with friends a few times after that. No problem. The Chicago fiasco faded until...
Cut to last weekend. I got a call from a producer with a Canadian morning TV news show Canada AM. They wanted to interview me on Monday about the topic of celebrity stress reactions and the bizarre case of Jason Russell, the documentary Filmmaker of Kony 2012. The world news was all over his nude, obscenity-laced, psychotic ranting in San Diego. This was shortly after his Kony video went viral and some of the millions began to criticize his documentary’s timeliness and authenticity regarding this Ugandan guerrilla group leader who “recruits” child soldiers. Was there a stress connection?
During the pre-interview, we decided to Skype Monday morning’s live interview. I hung up the phone. Three seconds later, I started to panic. “Damn! What if it happens again?”
Sunday morning I called a friend with whom I’d Skyped before, to try out the Skype video function, just in case. All went off without a hitch. My mind chuckled “We’re cool, baby.”
Sunday afternoon the producer called to firm things up. I told her of my Skype concerns but added that earlier it had worked fine with my friend in New York. She said that if it worked with my friend it would likely work with them. I suggested we might try it before show time, just in case. She waved it off but reminded me that their Skype protocol required that I call the show’s control room a few minutes before the hour to get picture and sound checks.
Monday, 5:55 AM, I was in my Skype set, chair in front of my monitor, ready to dance. I placed the call. They answered. Felt good…except… Right. No video!
Manic chaos ensued on both ends. Once again nothing remedied the voice-without-video nightmare. This time, though, my monitor kept flashing messages and screen-filling, B&W Jolly Roger-type icons about the video connection, all screaming NO VIDEOCAM. Yet I kept seeing me, live, on the screen, lower right hand corner. There damn well was a videocam! But the bloody pictures wouldn’t travel to Toronto.
Studio annoyance. Once again, Mea culpa. Once again, telephone to the rescue. Once again, W T F!, once again.
So, it came down to this: I and the engineers at two TV stations didn’t know what was wrong or what to do about it beyond punt to an audio-only interview. And yet, sometimes Skype worked as advertised. It worked with people I knew but not with people who were strangers. Except for the TimesCast crew. What did they know?
I decided to do what I, trained as a male, hate to do. Ask for help. I Googled “Skype video doesn’t work but audio does” and sent my little cyber-message- in-a-bottle off into cyberspace and waited.
Boom! Up popped many hundreds of answers. Remarkably some from the horse’s mouth, the Skype site itself. It all seemed a bit vampyric. Draculaic, you might say (Remember that Dracula required an invitation into your dwelling before he could sample the “house label.” Otherwise he could only chat, charm and inconspicuously salivate.).
Well, it seems that in order to Skype with someone for the first time, you have to create a New Contact protocol (new to me). To do this, you need to enter the Skype ID #, name, email, etc. and then send a text message to the new contact’s Skype address, requesting permission to enter their “house” of contacts. Then they must write back an acceptance. After that, full video and audio functions; before that, audio only, really, who knew?
Why did nobody know this in Chicago or Canada?
I tried it a few days later with a Skype stranger, but no stranger to Skype. Like me, he had just updated his Skype program and at first, like me, it didn’t work like the old one did. Undaunted, we pushed on, exchanged Contact invitations and, VOILA! We had lift-off.
Could it be that the TV stations in Chicago and Toronto hadn’t updated their Skype app and hadn’t run into this Dracula “ritual” problem before me? Something led to their not knowing about “the invitation,” the exchange of social niceties with new contacts. What? No clue.
As for the TimesCast people, they either knew something the others didn’t, or simply hadn’t updated their Skype app. I remembered something else. When I did the interview with them, it was on my desktop which had the earlier version of Skype installed. Maybe, maybe… Who knows? Puzzlement.
What I do know is buying new computers and working with updated programs and systems is an invitation to a game of Russian roulette, another opportunity to get into trouble. See, it has to do with my DNA. Some call it technophobia. I don’t. Call it instructional reading phobia (IRP). Maybe it’s just a guy thing. Let's call it asking directions phobia,(ADP).