Talking About Online Chatting

Since some time in the late 90s, online chatting has been a popular form of communication among people below a certain age. Whether AIM, gmail chat, facebook chat, ichat, or whatever other mode of usage, the online ping pong form of communication is something most of us have participated in or do participate in on a daily basis.

And as with most forms of communication, I have mixed feelings about it.

On one hand, I really enjoy the way that online chatting allows for more thoughtful back-and-forth. Certainly it doesn’t always happen, but at least the form lends itself to more thought-through responses. In face-to-face communication, if you pause for too long or look nervous trying to come up with something to say, it makes the situation awkward. Online, it’s accepted. You can take all the time you want to craft a message before you hit “send,” and both parties accept that this is how it should happen. Face-to-face, we often fill awkward silences with rushed statements or uncomfortable silence-fillers. Online, we can go about it slower and more methodically, crafting just the right response to communicate exactly the right thing.

I also like the way that online chatting preserves (or can preserve) a record of the conversation. You can scroll up to reference something that was previously said, or archive entire conversations to reference in the future. You can keep tabs on the tone, history and direction of the conversation. Finally, I think it is definitely the case that there are things—important things—that can be said much more readily and clearly in a written online chat than a face-to-face in-person chat. Like it or not, there is something about physical proximity and eye-to-eye connection that makes it hard to say things we might want to say or need to say. Online, it is easier. Alas, this is both a good and a bad thing… which leads me to some of my “on the other hand” qualms…

Is making the “hard stuff” easier really a good thing? This is my first question about online chat. I know for myself and many people I associate with, it is often the case that we opt for a chat message or email rather than face-to-face because it is convenient. Certainly when I want to chat with someone in Japan or something, online is a great option. But we also sometimes forgo face-to-face because of the awkward or dangerous aspect of it. Online chatting is much more controlled, after all.

But is “controlled” necessarily a good thing? Do we really get to know people—the real people—through controlled circumstances and “safe” methods of communication? I think it’s definitely possible that we can, because I do think I’ve gotten to know people better through online chatting, and I'm very thankful for that. But I also think that there is an implied distance and convenient removal to the whole thing. With every medium there is an implicit message, as McLuhan would say, and with the medium of online chatting it might be this: communication through this form is chiefly about efficiency, speed, convenience, and the absence of all face-to-face baggage.

One thing that I come back to in thinking about online chatting is the fact that it is just “one among many windows” on a personal computer screen. Typically while I am chatting with someone online, I am doing any number of the following things: checking or writing emails, writing something else, watching something online, eating, cooking, cleaning, buying plane tickets, listening to music, and/or chatting with a handful of other people simultaneously. What does this chaotic multi-tasking situation do to the meaning of a “conversation,” if only on a symbolic level? What message are we sending to one another with our laissez faire “brb” approach to starting and stopping and resuming-when-convenient communication patterns?

Don’t get me wrong. I love online chatting. I do it every day—with friends from across the world and coworkers a cubicle away. I have great, meaningful conversations. I schedule things and get important work done. I learn about people and they me. It’s a totally valid communication form, and it’s changed a lot of our communication patterns in the 21st century. For better, definitely; and also for worse.