When I talk to someone on GChat, it can sometimes feel more intimate than texting them, or talking on the phone, simply because I can see them in action: GChat will tell me when someone “is typing” or, the worst, when someone “has entered text.” But GChat also allows me the time and privacy to gather my thoughts before I speak so I can craft cute sentences and crack all those little puns that might have escaped me during an in-person conversation, all while I simultaneously stream Parks & Rec and eat Pad Thai in bed in my ratty underwear.
This sliver of privacy that GChat affords in a world of oversharing is exactly what New York-based developer Kate Ray and artist Holly Herndon sought to take away when they created Spyke, an experimental chat client that provides an intimate look at the person typing on the other end. Here’s how Spyke works: You and your messaging partner can use the chat service to send each other messages, just like you would use GChat or any other messaging service. But in addition, you each have to authorize each other to access your respective webcams. A “Take Pic” button then lets you take a snapshot of the person you’re chatting with, using their webcam, so you can see what they’re up to. The catch: They have no idea when you’re taking those photos, and vice versa, meaning the resulting shots are often of people at their most unguarded. There’s definitely no duckface.
The pair, who created Spyke in a single day and recently presented their work at the art and tech conference Seven on Seven, were both intrigued by “the ways that we connect and form intimacy online and over chat and email,” Ray tells The Date Report.
In testing out Spyke for myself with Ray, I suddenly found myself becoming hyperaware of what I was doing with my hands, or what funny face I was making. I told Ray I was glad she didn’t take a snapshot of me doing something embarrassing, although I can’t be completely sure without knowing exactly when she took a photo of me. Likewise, Ray had no idea I took this photo of her when I hit the “Take Pic” button in the middle of our chat:
She also has no idea how many photos I took of her over the course of our chat (just the one, Kate!) — and that’s the whole, slightly-spooky point of Spyke. (The name Spyke itself is simply Skype with the letters rearranged to form the word “spy.”)
“With people that I get romantically involved with, we spend a lot of time online talking to each other,” Ray says of her own GChat habits, particularly when it comes to her dating life. “You can see everything that’s being said. You can’t really mumble your way through the conversation.”
For now, Spyke is just a prototype. But it poses an interesting question: Would our chatting behavior be different if the people we chat with could actually see us mid-typing? Considering all the carefully measured choices we make when deciding how to portray ourselves in the best possible Internet light, I’d have to say the answer is yes. Which means I should probably go buy some not-ratty underwear.