Videochat: The Cupholder of Social Networking

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A few years ago, Duke engineer Henry Petroski wrote, "The history of [X] design has been one of incorporating nonessential features that subsequently became indispensable." Which brings me immediately to Facebook and Skype's announcement that the latter will now be embedded in the former. From now on, you'll be able to videochat with Facebook friends from within the comfy confines of the Internet's biggest mall.

Facebook's announcement follows the rollout of Google Hangouts, which my friend Jenna Wortham raved about over at the New York Times' Gadgetwise blog. And, of course, Apple released FaceTime, which allows you to make video calls over WiFi, along with the iPhone 4.

Everyone, it seems, wants to bring you into the exciting world of videochat.

Let's return to Petroski, who wasn't talking about social networks, but the incorporation of stuff like cupholders into automobiles. Neither has much to do with the operation of the vehicle, but they've become a selling point for the car companies. Or to make a finer point: cupholders are a defense against a competitors' cupholders. They exist not because we're going to use them all the time or even that we want them, but rather because at some point we may need one. So, a car without one would somehow seem lacking relative to a car with one, even if that other car might be marginally better at the real business of being driven from one place to another.

People make their consumer decisions with their maximum possible usage scenarios in mind. So, years before you have kids, you get a sedan, just in case. Or you don't want to buy an electric car even though you drive 10 miles a day because you want the possibility of driving 300 miles one day. You get an SUV for the five days a year you have to drive in snow. If we're rational consumers, it's a very selective kind of rationality.

In this way, cupholders became indispensable. Not because they were a fundamental part of car-based mobility, but because every car company felt the need to start putting them into their cars. Of course, once they got there, people started to use and evaluate them, comparing the relative merits of various designs. Something few people wanted and fewer people needed became a feature you can't escape.

And as with cupholders, so will go videochatting. As of the past week, the ability to videochat is pretty much ubiquitous and we'll all do it now and again. But the cupholder isn't the car, and to treat the ability to videochat in any form as tantamount to transforming communication would be reaching too far. Videochatting might become indispensable, but I think it will remain mostly irrelevant.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where he oversees the Technology Channel. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer calls Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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