Skype: the Open Confessional

Skype: the Open Confessional December 4, 2012

The Pope’s on Twitter. The secular press is running profiles of Catholic bloggers. It’s starting to look like the new media have been baptized, confirmed, and maybe even canonized. (Isidore of Seville serves as patron saint of the Internet, at least while Elizabeth Scalia’s above ground.) Before all this aggiornamento gives the Church a bad case of agita, I’d like to make a pitch for Skype.

With 663 million registered users worldwide, the voice-over protocol, which enables users to communicate via satellite with microphone and webcam, is about as global and intimate as communication gets. In the ten months I’ve had my account, Skype has taken me to Canada, Germany, New Zealand and Turkey. The New Zealander made a point of aiming her webcam out her French doors to offer me a look at her backyard. No, I saw no Hobbits crouching in her trees but yes, my summer was her winter! Next time, I’ll ask for a look at her toilet, so I can see for myself whether the water really does go down counterclockwise.

For my remote ancestors, cracking the mysteries of life beneath the Southern Cross required lifetime transportation to Botany Bay. For my grandparents’ generation, it meant suffering through a shellback ceremony and being torpedo-bombed by Nakajimas. With Skype, I have only to shave and put on clothes.

On the 45th World Communications Day, Pope Benedict approved Internet use in principle, but warned against “enclosing oneself in a sort of parallel existence” and “constructing an artificial profile for oneself.” If someone’s determined to sustain an illusion, Skype won’t automatically puncture it. (Recall those 30 Rock episodes, where Tracy caches himself in Liz Lemon’s spare bedroom but, by Skyping in a tarbush and dashiki before a tropical backdrop, convinces the gang he’s fled to Africa.) But one thing Skyping with an online friend will inevitably do is puncture whatever illusions you’ve constructed in your head, with or without help.

In April of 2011, when I was guest-blogging for the Anchoress, I accepted a number of friendship requests from strangers who claimed to be readers. Over time, one of them came to occupy a pre-eminent place in my online existence. Vastly knowledgeable about history, philosophy and literature (plus a couple of other disciplines, like music, I couldn’t have given a damn about), he made offhand remarks that hinted at a CV like a cabinet secretary’s. But he’d struck all images of himself from his profile. He wasn’t a bit shy about his opinions, which he broadcast in five-to-ten-paragraph blocks, or about his tastes — he clogged his friends’ newsfeeds with dog and cat memes and the works of the Dutch Masters. But his face he veiled as jealously as the God of the Israelites.

Normally, I wouldn’t puzzle over something like this. Instead, projecting for all I was worth, I’d decide the guy was a factoid-hoarding crank like the John Turturro character from Quiz Show and looked the part. But this person just didn’t fit the mold. He spoke with genuine confidence, not defensive bravado. I wondered whether he could be a well-known public intellectual, posting incognito. Or maybe — it occurred to me late one night as my teeth were still chattering from the last 44 ounces of Diet Mountain Dew — he had no corporeal existence, at least not a conventional one. He could be a Sauron or a Keyser Söze.

One morning, apparently out of the blue, this fellow PM’d me, suggesting we Skype. I agreed, but silently bid the world farewell. I’d have given even money for my frying to a cinder like Semele at the first glimpse of him. To my relief, the enigma turned out to have an unmistakably humanoid appearance. In fact, he looked a little like Stephen Fry and dressed a lot like an off-duty Bill Buckley. Concluding he’d concealed himself for so long for the sake of some preppy ideal of bienséance, I relaxed and, if anything, came to enjoy his posts even more.

The author Jonathan Ames calls himself a coy exhibitionist. Though he uses the term to explain his writing, which takes the tone and style of a confession while obscuring as much biographical detail as it reveals, any user of social media could claim the title. On one hand, Facebook and Twitter convention encourages us to share minute and even intimate details of our personal lives (“I have straight pubes,” tweeted a close friend.). At the same time, it enables us to omit whatever facts we think deserve omission. Not long ago, another friend, who’d plunged into a deep depression when her infant daughter died, started filling her Facebook profile with pictures of herself beaming like a college girl on spring break. Only later did she admit the pictures were somewhat misleading — she was feeling better, but not that much.

Skype has a way of breaking the tie in favor of revelation. It empowers those of us so inclined to back up the claims we make online. When I first began bragging on Rusty, the stray cat I’d semi-rescued, I could tell that Rick, my real-time best friend, was skeptical. Rusty was never around when he came to visit. Only a few lonely nuggets of kibble in a plastic bowl supported my story. Rick, who has often despaired of my sanity, would not think me above imagining a phantom, Snuffle-Uffagus pet and believing in him strongly enough to think he needed feeding. He might even suspect me of channeling Rusty just long enough to swallow a few mouthfuls of Meow Mix Tender Centers.

Time and good luck solved that problem — Rick showed up early one Saturday morning just in time to catch Rusty trying to drink from my kitchen faucet. But I began to worry about my readers. Having a private reputation as a delusional kook is something I’m used to; having a public one as an unreliable narrator is much more serious. By way of taking out an insurance policy on my credibility, I presented Rusty on webcam to some readers who had become friends. If necessary, they’ll vouch for him, and for me. It’s true that Rusty doesn’t especially like being picked up, but I would hope he’d like even less to see his benefactor falsely denounced.
As a truth detector, Skype can be more sensitive than some users might suspect or want. At the beginning of this year, a long-distance romance of mine turned into a longer-distance romance when the woman took a job overseas. We pledged to Skype as often as possible, which turned out to be nearly every day. With each of those days I read in her face more boredom, more ambivalence and more tension. Finding the data impossible to ignore, I decided to ask the big question. As they might have done face to face, her lowered eyes answered even before her lips did.

Pope Benedict spoke enthusiatically of “vast cultural transformation” where people can “reach beyond the confines of space and of their own cultures” in search of authentic human encounters. I don’t know that any medium guarantees complete authenticity, not even the kiss or the handshake. But Skype makes a good-faith effort. Along with a sense of privacy and one of physical safety, it guarantees users a barrage of visual cues that would take many thousands of words to translate into language. If the global village has a church, Skype might just figure as the open confessional — one where confessor and confessee can trade roles freely, and one of the last places where they can enjoy a smoke.

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