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Tue 23 Oct 2007 06:31 AM

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When online networks collide

The MySpace-Skype deal - a cunning tie-up or pointless development that fails to grasp how web users interact?

It will be interesting to see how the telecoms authorities in some markets here handle this development, as this cost-free coming together of technologies will not require MySpace users to download the Skype application proper (in other words, the piece of software that is blocked here in such VoIP-restricted markets as the UAE), which in turn means this calling functionality might initially be available to every Middle East ‘MySpacer'.

Instead it will work like this: Skype's functionality will be integrated directly into MySpace's instant messaging (IM) software. Which means users will be able to call their friends direct - free when calling MySpace or Skype users PC-to-PC style, and paid for when calling landlines - as well as being able to link their profiles and photos (‘avatars') to their Skype accounts.

The service is due to kick off from the end of November, with the two firms claiming they're creating the "world's largest online, voice-connected community". And numbers wise that's probably very true. But the question I'm puzzling is, will this functionality actually be used? MySpace's chief exec Chris DeWolfe claimed last week that "Internet calling is the natural next step for how our members communicate with each other," but I'm not sure the take-up will be really huge.

You see MySpace is largely populated by youths and young(ish) adults. They're obviously a tech-savvy bunch (unlike, generally speaking, their parents' generation) as they've created MySpace pages, uploaded songs etc. They're probably using one or more IM programs outside of MySpace and, likely as not, a VoIP app like Skype too, already. So their online social interaction structures are, if you like, already set to a degree.

And here's the rub: there's a very fine distinction between how a user employs an IM app and a voice calling app (even if these are one and the same such as the MSN/Live messenger software). To my mind therefore, MySpace's bosses aren't accurate in thinking that the two overlap.

That's because users who call people from their PCs tend to have a specific group of close friends and family that they contact in this way - parents abroad say, or best friends who might be online at home. That group is however quite a separate gang to the ‘tier 2' crew of messenger contacts most of us users have - such as online acquaintances and occasional real-world friends - which we're happy to have a text chat with every so often, but rarely, if ever, actually ring.

Calling someone implies and indeed requires a degree of familiarity that IMing doesn't. There is the potential for strained silences for example, unless you're at ease in each other's company, whereas with the IM approach any silences can simply be passed off as being busy chatting to someone else, there being someone at the door and so on. The IM process itself is less immediate, less taxing, and so lends itself to more casual chitter chatter between acquaintances.

So, in short, it seems to me that if a user wanted to ring their MySpace friend, the chances are they'd already have done, using whichever desktop solution they prefer (or even, shockingly, a normal phone). And thus this Skype tie-up won't make the slightest bit of difference.

I don't apply these same thoughts to Facebook however. That site hasn't had to do an official tie-up with Skype, as two sets of third-party developers have instead created and uploaded FB apps - called ‘Skype me' and ‘Call Me on Skype' respectively. (The difference here however is that users do need to have downloaded the full Skype app, so in effect these apps are the equivalent of Skype's own IE toolbar add-in; which changes any webpage-displayed telephone numbers into Skype calling links.) This FB Skype function is different because, I believe, people keep more regularly in contact with close friends through FB than they do through MySpace.

Still, as least MySpace didn't pay $2.6 billion for the honour of adding Skype like eBay did in 2005, only for one of its bosses to then later admit - recently and very publicly - that the firm had probably overpaid by hundreds of millions. Internet madness I tell you... time to think people!

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