Humanity has dreamed of live video calling between groups of people since the late 19th century—almost since the invention of the telephone.
Today, in the comparatively futuristic year of 2019, what we’ve been granted are a slew of imperfect video conferencing applications like Skype, Google Hangouts, and Zoom. It’s rare that I’ve seen someone successfully set up one of these for a big meeting on the first try. Most of these freeze or crash my computer at some point during the call.
So when Skype announced last week that it can now accommodate 50 people on a video call at once (up from the 25-person groups it previously allowed) I felt compelled, in an extremely fatalistic, masochistic way, to see what would happen in a 50-person Skype clown car.
Fully knowing I have neither 49 close acquaintances or friends, nor the CPU to handle streaming 50 live videos at once, I decided to test this feature out. I expected my laptop to spontaneously combust under the effort, but what happened instead was an exercise that highlighted the absurdity of chat rooms.
I started this experiment rooting for spectacular failure, prepared to toast my work-issued laptop in the process. This delicate computer, a 2013 Macbook Air, struggles to run Chrome with 20+ open tabs (three usually YouTube, one usually a news outlet bloated with video ads, one Tweetdeck running 15 columns), Spotify, and Slack.
Surely, running 50 live-streaming videos at once would bring it all crashing down on me, right? Well, not necessarily.
It turned out that the hardest part of this experiment was convincing 50 people to get on a random Skype call. I’m not sure I would have signed up to help test this, myself—I delete Skype every time I go without using it for a couple of weeks, because it takes up 229.3 megabytes of valuable disk space on my fragile Macbook Air, and by the time I reinstall it I’ve usually forgotten my password and need to reset.
Finding 50 people to potentially go through this process proved challenging. So that people weren’t entering a video call abruptly, and to hopefully create a more exciting finale, I made a group chat that served as a text-only waiting room until we neared 50.
We did reach 50 participants—after nearly two arduous hours of begging people in my work Slack channels and by posting the group link on Twitter for any rando reply-guy to join. It felt like a group effort: cheering when we gained more people, urging each other to hang on when we got closer.
When we finally hit 50 people in the chat, I asked everyone to turn their video on and join the call-in-progress. Everyone got into the call, and almost everyone (but not all) joined with video. Instead of 50 screens of video in one pane, as I expected, Skype rotated a grid of four larger video participants, and kept the rest in bubbles at the top, tiny shifting people sitting at their desks, quietly tapping on keyboards.
It was pretty anti-climatic. Nothing crashed. Some people reported lag or struggled to keep it running smoothly on mobile as people piled in. No one’s video was perfectly sharp, but they were visible and not frozen.
Then something truly strange happened. I clicked away from the call for a moment—I had been sitting in a small phone booth for two hours, and needed to check Slack and stick my head out the door for a second—and when I came back to the chat, something was going down.
Rejoining the conference, I found that someone (I still am not sure who) had donned a spider head, and was casually sitting on the conference. Normal times.
Findings and Discussion
The whole experience made me miss my earliest days online, clicking random links and entering chat rooms full of strangers with strange screen names, trying to guess if I knew them IRL or if they’d parachuted into the chat by finding a link.
A lot of chat rooms still work this way—we just call them “platforms,” now. For example, on Discord, many rooms are open to the public. But if you can find an invite link stashed somewhere in a comment section elsewhere online, like on Reddit, you’re in. It’s like hearing music on the other side of an apartment door from the hallway, and opening it to a rager.
Although most chat platforms keep logs, the moments spent in these rooms feel ephemeral; there’s a “you had to be there” quality to them. Like the spider furry. Trying to explain the dissociative weirdness of a chatroom is still kind of difficult, now, after decades of being in them—and it’s what I do for a living.
I expected Club Skype to be hell, and I guess if I were using it for an actual conference call or meeting, it would have been. I didn’t need to ask anyone to mute their microphones or take turns talking—the universally worst part of any conference call aside from actually getting it set up—because when our video and audio was on, it was usually just muffled office sounds or occasional giggling. Fifty-something people, all from other pockets of communities or roaming the internet, popping in and out, shooting the shit.
The fact remains that since its launch in 2003, and acquisition by Microsoft in 2011, Skype became one of the first truly ubiquitous video calling apps of our generation, but the product itself still feels very dated and clunky. The user interface hasn’t changed that much since it launched over a decade ago. But I don’t know if I hate that. If it’s always been a little bit broke, why fuck with it too much?
Just maybe don’t subject your coworkers to a 50-person video conference, generally. Just because you can, now, doesn’t mean you should.