When I was working on some communications strategy for a project, I first used the categories for synchronous and asynchronous communications. Asynchronous communication is a process where the participants of the communication do not necessarily have to be online at the same time in order to communicate such as emails. Synchronous communication is a process where all participants have to be online at the same time in order to get an added value of it such as a video call or chatting. Of course chat messages can also be sent (with most programs) when the other person is offline. He will then receive it when he comes back online but this would more likely be a pretty short email than a real chat, because a chat requires both people to interact with each other with short questions and answers rather than a long text following a long text from the other person (as in emails).
Some new developments however screw this distinction of synchronous and asynchronous communications. More precisely, they make synchronous communication asynchronous and therefore obsolete – without even knowing it. I don’t know where I first experienced it, but I would like to one recent example later on. But first, let us have a closer look at the chat function of Facebook.
Facebook chat shows my friends who chose to be seen online in a list, categorized by my particular needs (friends, colleagues, I have to freaking idea who that is but he added me). When I click their name, I can send them a message. In real-time this message will be transmitted to that person and he or she can answer but sending me a message back. When one of us goes offline and the other one sends a message, this message will not be send thru the chat anymore but thru the private messaging system of Facebook (very similar to email, understanding wise). This transition from chat to message did not always work well and I would not risk sending an important message to someone on Facebook chat when he is offline, hoping that it will be redirected to his private message inbox (though, important messages should never be sent via Facebook, but this is another story).
Then, there are mobile phones. To be precise: smart phones. There are so many things you can do with them. One recent, free of charge, features for the Blackberry for example is the integration of the Facebook chat into the Facebook application on the phone. This means, I can stay online on Facebook chat the whole time with my Blackberry. And when I am home I just switch it over to my computer. However, phones and smart phones still are used in a certain way. ‘I just check my emails’. ‘I just make a phone call’. ‘I just look up what thisandthat really is’. Did you ever here someone ‘I will not be available for the next five minutes because I am chatting on my smart phone’? Text messages are certainly faster in pace then emails are. However, they are still slower in pace than chat is. If someone does not respond to my text message in a couple of minutes, it is still okay because he might be in the Starbucks queue getting a hot latte or has no reception because he got into the elevator. There is a different expectation with chat though.
If I chat with someone, I always picture him in front of a computer or laptop. If he answers, it means he has time. If he is online but does not answer, then he certainly does not have time – or does not like me anymore. Imagine this someone is now not sitting on his desk with his laptop anymore but getting is hot latte. He replies to my first chat message (for me as chatter a sign of him wanting to chat) with some quick characters (for him a standard response to emails and text messages on the phone). I will be under the impression that he is chat-ready but he will be under the impression that he answered everything already. Instead of communicating synchronously (as intrinsic to chat) it will become more and more asynchronous because the perception of one (or maybe both) of the communication partners is different. If the one with the smart phone does not sit down and dedicates time to the chatting process, it will end up in sending chat messages every now and then and the chat will convert into a small scale email – asynchronous communication. It happened to me last week and I thought naah, maybe it’s just me. When a friend told me the same just two days later, I began to spend some thoughts on it.
What is the outcome of this? People will be more online on chat programs but less responsive. Subsequently, I will less message them (because I assume they are just idling on their smart phone, showing off that they have a smart phone and the latest app but will not answer anyway) and instead email them or write a private message in one of the social networking sites, I know they frequent every evening.
Will chat die? Certainly not..