Josh Silverman: How Video Changes Everything

Whether it’s a clip of “Tajik Jimmy” putting Bollywood soundtracks to shame, catching a friend’s wedding eight time zones away or working “side by side” with coworkers in another country, it’s all video. And it’s changing the way we communicate with one another.

Video technology has become so ubiquitous that we rarely pause to think of the potential implications, both hopeful and sinister. I’ll focus on the sweeter side of its progress.

Take Skype. You could view video calls as a natural upgrade to wideband visuals from narrowband voice conversations. But we believe there’s more to it than just a richer conversation. Voice calls, after all, tend to be transactional: You tell me this; I’ll tell you that. Bye! It can be a difficult way to communicate and we often get little out of it beyond efficient information exchange.

By the way, I’m not dissing voice for the sake of it. I happen to agree with whomever said that radio is television for the mind. But in terms of having a conversation, voice and video are two rather different species.

With video, people are suddenly present without having to be in the same room as one another. The encounter, by extension, is no longer merely transactional. When my friend in Ann Arbor, Mich., turned 40, I joined the party from London over video. The distance between us evaporated — a benefit voice calls cannot deliver. A similar thing happens by way of the permanent live video wall that joins up our offices in Tallinn and Prague: An Estonian engineer’s desk is right next to that of her team member in the Czech Republic.

Video changes the whole nature of “being there” to something between audio and physical presence. (3D holographic video that other companies and researchers are working on makes the experience even more immersive, if not yet affordable.) In other words, a live video conversation is not just a voice call with pictures. It’s not just a milestone in the evolution of the Internet. It’s an entirely different way of communicating.

For hundreds of thousands of years, people have shared meaning through language. Its form has evolved from oral to visual and, for the past few thousand years, written. Yet until the 20th century, true conversations were tied to a shared place or shifted by time (letters). Even then, only being together with someone allowed for rich, full interaction to bloom. Live video conversations are changing all that, combining the oral, visual and written traditions into virtual presence.

Ironically, all this progress means that we can finally return to the basics — stuff that’s worked for eons (but hasn’t transcended place or time). Or, as the Institute for the Future puts it, we’re seeing the “emergence of a new digitally-mediated oral society.” At the very least, real-time video is getting us closer to where the communication medium itself becomes almost invisible, letting people themselves be the platform.

It’s easy to slip into hyperbole. So take it with a pinch of salt when I talk about entering a place of virtual presence that mimics tangible reality, saves time and deletes distance through live video links. Take it with a pinch of salt, too, when IFTF says this new oral society creates a new public sphere. Let’s not forget that it’s still early days. But video already allows Skype users to transcend place and time, whether on the desktop or on a Skype-enabled TV, and some 4 percent of all international calling minutes are now video calling minutes, on Skype. If nothing else, we’ll see a global human video mesh that anyone can tap into, irrespective of location or device. And even that would be pretty cool.

Video is not only an entirely different way of communicating, but a really important one.

Josh Silverman is CEO of Skype.