Social Media in public works 101 - online voice and video chat

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So far all of the tools we've been exploring, with the exception of photosharing sites like Flickr, rely only on some form of writing or texting. This works fine for short messages sent through Facebook or Twitter or for creating blog posts, but it's not so great for longer conversations or real-time communications. Fortunately a few sites have been developed to allow voice-based interactions or voice over Internet Protocol (VOIP) service. One of the most well-known of these is Skype, first released in 2003 and purchased in 2011 by Microsoft.

Skype is one of those tools that seems almost too good to be true. The service allows you to create a free account, install the software on your computer, and then using a headset or microphone, call anyone else in the world who has a Skype account without paying any fees at all. If both of you have a webcam, you can also video chat. And finally you can add other people into your call if they also have Skype accounts.

There is also a paid plan for those who really like the service and wish they could use it to call an actual phone or cell number. For only $2.99 a month, you can call anywhere in the U.S. or Canada, and for $21.99 a month, you can call several countries all over the world including China . And Skype has other paid subscriptions and plans offering additional services and capabilities including a phone number that can be used by people to contact you through Skype.

To get your free Skype account, just visit and click the "Join" button. This will take you to a sign-in screen. Here you can either register an account with an email and password or you can sign-in using a Microsoft or Facebook account. You will also have to pick a Skype name. If you are using Windows 8 I have noticed that the service will try to force a merge of your Microsoft account with any Skype account you create. So if you already have a Microsoft account, you might want to just use that to create your Skype account.

After creating your account, you'll want to download the software. You can do this by clicking "Get Skype" in the menu bar on the Skype website. Here you will see that Skype can be installed on many devices including your computer desktop, a mobile phone, a game console, and on your television. After you've installed the software, go ahead and launch it then sign in with your Skype name and password. This will take you to the main window showing a contact list on the left and a panel on the right. At this time, you should only have the Sound Test Service showing up in your contact list. It's a good idea to call this service to try out your sound. Once you know it is working, you can start searching for people you know who might be on Skype.

Another nice feature in Skype is the instant messaging. Rather than calling people, you can also send them typed messages and include files and photos. This is handy for quickly sending a question or message to someone who you know is usually at their computer. And it cuts down on email and phone calls - particularly because you can add others into the chat.

Before we go on, I want to leave you with one word of caution in using Skype: as soon as possible after setting up your account, make sure you go to the Tools menu and go through all the tabs and check to allow calls and video chat "only from people in my Contact list." Trust me on this - you don't want unsolicited calls.

Gmail Contact ListIn addition to Skype, our friend Google has also set up a voice and video chat service. If you open your Gmail window, you should see a listing of your contacts on the left side of the screen. A green circle shows they are online and available for text chat while the green camera symbol shows they are also available for video calling. Yellow symbols indicate they are idle or perhaps away from the computer while red means they are online, but not available for chat. Gray means they are offline. If you don't see something similar to what is shown in the image here try going into your settings, and under the "Chat" tab make sure you have all of the communication methods enabled.

You can contact any of the people listed and shown as available by just clicking their names. This brings up a small window in the lower right hand side of your screen. Here you can either type in the little window to send them a message or choose the video or phone symbol to contact them through video or voice. Google also currently allows you to call any cell or landline for free by simply clicking the phone symbol near your photo at the top of your contact list. TGmail Chat Windowshis also brings up a screen in the lower right hand side of your window, but this one has a number pad. You can either use the number pad to call a phone number or just type it into the little window above the pad. Both the chat and voice service windows are shown in the image here.

One more method of calling or video chatting is accessed by clicking the little video camera next to your photo at the top of your contact list. This brings up a Google Hangout window. In this window you can either type in people's names to call or you can click the "Telephone" tab to input a phone number. Remember, you will need a webcam to make the most use of the video chat capabilities.


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About the Blogger

Pam Broviak

thumbnail image A former senior editor of PUBLIC WORKS, Pam Broviak publishes the Public Works Group Blog at (All views expressed in this blog are her own and not those of PUBLIC WORKS.)