The week of November 22, 2015

Skype is the new Thanksgiving

By Nico Lang

If you’re a broke young person living in New York—paying some of the highest rents in the country along with your student loan bills—the holiday season is an air travel Sophie’s Choice: Do you fly home for Thanksgiving or Christmas?

November and December are notoriously expensive when it comes to purchasing a plane ticket, and the problem is only getting worse every year—with increasing demand and limited availability. The number of Americans who travel to spend Thanksgiving with friends or family climbs each year—this year, up to 47 million, according to AAA—and prices are skyrocketing along with it. Mashable reported in July that, despite lower gas prices, airfare costs are increasing across the board in 2015, which is likely to affect your holiday travel. And that’s not even including the inevitable Uber from the airport and hotel fare, should your family not have room. Crowding 20 Thanksgiving feasters in a two-story house means some guests are bound to get left in the cold.

That’s why—despite travel rates being on the rise nationally—it seems like every cash-strapped New York millennial is skipping the nightmare this year. The ’90s television show Friends popularized the notion of “Friendsgiving,” a festivity that gives those with an empty wallet or nowhere else to go an alternative to the cookie-cutter family formula. But the advent of technology and videoconferencing has also given those lacking deep pockets an incredible array of options—like FaceTime, Google Hangouts video chat, or Skype. Instead of the awkward call where your grandmother passes you around to say hello to everyone for a drive-by greeting, you can be present in the room—even if it’s only your pixelated face.

Skype is an important act of showing your presence among loved ones.

If 47 million Americans travel for Thanksgiving, that means 275 million aren’t. And according to estimates from Skype, numbers show that the Microsoft-owned company’s service is catching on as a handy substitute: In 2013, an estimated 14.1 million Skypers used the service on Thanksgiving, and that number has likely only increased in the years since, with the ubiquity of video chatting and live-streaming apps. And even if you don’t Skype with your family or broadcast your meal on Periscope, there’s always posting Facebook videos or Instagram photos to help your family feel a little closer.

While it might seem little consolation to those who miss out on the family’s yearly traditions (like watching Grandpa fall asleep from a food coma during the James Bond marathon), Gizmodo’s Leslie Horn argues that there’s a reason Skype is catching on. Calling your family on the phone might emphasize the distance between you, but video chatting helps close that divide. “You might not be able to be there in the flesh, but seeing your nearest and dearest, even through a screen, is the next best thing,” she writes. It’s like the old advice given to writers: “Show, don’t tell.” Horn argues that Skype is an important act of showing your presence among loved ones.

Likewise, the visual of your family and friends is a crucial reminder of the simplest joys the holiday has to offer. The origins of Thanksgiving might make the remembrance perennially controversial because of its roots in colonial history, but divorced from its genocidal underpinnings, it’s always been my favorite holiday. While Halloween is about playing dress up and Christmas has become an onslaught of Yuletide consumerism, Thanksgiving lacks the pretense of gifts or macabre revelry. It’s simply about the power of coming together to break bread, whether that’s to overcome differences or simply to watch football; that message might be as much of a myth as tryptophan making you drowsy, but as far as pernicious lies go, it’s a nice one.

Calling your family on the phone might emphasize the distance between you, but video chatting helps close that divide.

If Thanksgiving emphasizes the low-key joys of togetherness, that’s likewise what makes Skype such a compelling tool. In 2013, the company launched its Stay Together campaign to remind customers that the service wasn’t just for work conferences—it’s for your mom and dad, too. In the video series, Skype created a series of “family portraits.” The most compelling is a testimonial from a man who emigrated from Uganda to the U.S. to escape the war and keeps in touch over the video service with the son he left behind. “When I left Uganda, it was in the middle of the night,” he recalls. “I carried nothing with me—no memory from my past, no family photos.” Over Skype, he can watch his son grow up.

In an interview for Skype’s Play Blog, New York photographer John Clang argued that video conferencing and social media aren’t just keeping families all over the world together—they’re also changing the geographic boundaries of intimacy at the times we need it most. Clang came to New York in 1999 from his native Singapore, but those technological advances have made being thousands of miles from home much easier; it’s also the only way he can see his parents. As the company’s Shana Pearlman wrote, his story is a reminder that “the people with whom we are closest are often not physically present in our lives.”

This year, I might not be able to spend Thanksgiving with my family in Michigan, but through Skype, I can witness just how much my baby cousins have grown since I last saw them. I can be reminded of the delicious meals we’ve shared in my aunt’s East Lansing home—complete with my grandmother’s famous cherry cheesecake. While I travel to Harlem to make my own traditions with friends both new and old, getting to see my family over Skype shows me both what I’m missing and that I don’t have to miss it at all. It’s there anytime I want, just a video chat away.

Photos via John Abella/Flickr (CC BY SA 2.0) and Norman Rockwell | Remix by Jason Reed