Very Recently, Google unveiled the newest contender in the great Social Networks Wars. Google+ has broken out on the scene with all the fanfare of the season’s Rookie of the Year, finally breaking out of the Minors with a very promising career ahead of him. Google+ is what you get when you take Facebook out of the dog park and send it to obedience school. What Google+ will become, however, remains to be seen.
But this post isn’t about Google+, it’s about videoconferencing.
One of Google+’s most interesting features is something called the “hangout”.
The hangout is a videoconferencing feature that you can use to communicate with any of your G+ friends. You can limit your conversation to certain circles, you can videochat with only a certain person, or you can just expose yourself to the world of Google+ at large, like a shameless video exhibitionist.
Google+’s new video communication format, much like Skype and TokBox before it, provides a shining example of exactly The Future[tm] that we were promised as children. Whenever we would talk to Grandma on the phone as kids, or to our girlfriends/boyfriends as teens, we knew that we were confined to an audio-only format. The very concept of “telephone” was that it was sorely lacking in visual. Being able to see the person on the other end of the line was something for the Future. We just weren’t there yet. That was something for the The Jetsons, in their far-off 21st century existence, full of rocket-cars and hi-rise glass-covered condos in the stratosphere.
Welcome to the Future!
Now we have several different ways to communicate by video, we can chat on the phone with people anywhere in the world, complete with a video feed. Webcams have become standard issue on most laptops, and it’s pretty simple to set up an account on Ustream, or any number of video chat services. After Google+ demonstrated that “Hangouts” were viable, Facebook initiated its own video chat service accessible to all users. Video chat is all around us. We can have Grandma tuck our kids into bed at night with a reading from Dr. Seuss, we can have a business conference from the privacy of our home, we can videochat with any number of entrepreneurial young women who use their webcam for … er, business purposes. [blush]
So why don’t we have video librarianship yet?
I’m pretty sure that I’m in the minority here. Personally, I would love to be able to chat with patrons over a video feed. As a veteran of virtual reference chat, I enjoy meeting patrons online and sending them links to fulfill their information needs. But I can’t help but to feel that there’s something missing from text chat. Without the friendly smiling face of a happy human librarian, the reference interview takes on a different tenor. Oh sure, there are shortcuts and clever IM techniques to use to avoid aliening your patron. (use of smileys, constant flow of information, etc) But I’ve always felt that it might be helpful for a patron to actually SEE the person that they’re chatting with. Yet for some reason, we’re simply not doing this. Why the heck not? I think Miss Felicia Day might have a clue …There seems to be a prevalent fear of one’s own image when seen in an online format. People who think nothing of walking up to the local fast food joint in a ratty old t-shirt, gym shorts and [shudder] Crocs; suddenly become very self-conscious and image-aware when faced with the judgmental eye of the webcam. It’s as if “being seen” takes on a whole new level of scrutiny when it’s a camera’s gaze. Of course, “camera-shyness” is nothing new. The eyes of the general public are not nearly as frightening as the unflinching eye of “The Camera”.
But a webcam isn’t at all like a “spy camera”. Unless you subscribe to some bizarre conspiracy theories, it is the user who controls exactly what the camera sees. It isn’t a patron cornering you in your kitchen unawares. A video librarian would most likely use the webcam at his or desk, while dressed for work, with hair and makeup presentable. Even a videolibrarian working from home could take steps to set his or her workspace up so that it would be presentable to the most casual viewer. You could even set up stage lighting.
The benefit to this would be a human face presented to the patron. No need to worry about the vocal cues and inflections that are lost in text chat. The ability to use gestures and facial expressions to the patron would enable you to convey a greater range of information to the hapless user on the other side of the monitor. Additionally, the use of visual aids would assist communication in other ways. Sometimes the only way to explain something to someone is to draw them a picture. This works both ways of course. If a patron needs to show you something to illustrate what they are looking for, they can do that with video chat.
And yet video reference just hasn’t caught on. Perhaps it’s just something that the patrons haven’t been receptive to. Maybe I’m just an attention whore and most librarians prefer the anonymity of their own little corner of the reference area. Perhaps some communities just have more stalkery patrons that don’t need the encouragement. What do you all think? Have any of you TRIED videoreference with less-than-optimal results? Or is it just not worth the time and energy? Let me know! Maybe we can discuss it on a Google+ hangout! ;)
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