Give me group video chat or give me death

Facebook just unveiled their new video chatting service using Skype integration. There’s little doubt that, despite them being in bed together for a while now, video chatting wasn’t ready for primetime. Google+ changed things and likely forced their hands. That’s mainly conjecture, but here we have it, you can now video chat on Facebook, but would you want to?

The first problem you come across with Facebook’s video chat is the need to download a plugin (sorry, Chromebook users. No love for you). You only need to do this once and it’s at best an annoyance, at worst a hassle, for those of us adjusted to an “everything just works” mindset. With the call connected you’re greeted with the second problem.

Facebook pops up a chat window that while attractive, hovers over your browser and remains persistently on top of all windows. You can minimize it, but that seems to defeat the purpose of video chatting. So you’re faced with a massive, cumbersome screen and are essentially barred from any kind of multitasking while chatting. As Facebook would say, this is more “intimate.” All this seemed small and passable until the biggest problem with Facebook video chat dawned on me. No group chatting.

I’ve long been an active user of Tinychat and now a full convert to Google+ Hangouts. Video calls require a certain investment in time and effort that can at times seem like overkill for a simple one-to-one chat. When you need to contact someone rapidly, you default to text (messenger/chat) or voice calls. Video calls require a certain amount of engagement that you may not be prepared to give.

The dynamic is somewhat different in a group dynamic. Hangout really is an apt name. You gather with a host of people, prepared to drop whatever else you’re doing, and you engage with words, gestures, and eye contact. Facebook’s contention that consumers prefer video chatting for intimate one-on-one communications has one flaw. People reserve in-person meetings for intimate one-on-one communication, and video calls are more a contingency to bridge a gap that can’ be easily covered. So the one-on-one is a fallback, not always a choice.

Without the ability to group chat, video chatting on Facebook becomes just another app, the increasing mountains of bloatware that make Facebook glitchy. Facebook shows either a serious strategic disconnect, or they were caught with their pants down and were trying to spin the release positively. The entire presentation reiterated the massive popularity of groups and how groups and apps are quickly becoming the cornerstone of Facebook. People get on Facebook to connect with groups. Group video chat would have been worth talking about; worth even the “awesome” label we were promised. However, this? Excuse me while I yawn. And lest we forget, Google may not be worried about this lackluster counterpunch from Zuckerberg, but they aren’t exactly standing still either.

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