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In-Room Chat as a Social Tool

by Clay Shirky
12/26/2002

This fall, I hosted a two-day brainstorming session for 30 or so people on the subject of social software. The event, sponsored by Cap-Gemini's Center for Business Innovation and Nokia's Insight and Foresight unit, took place in an open loft, and in addition to the usual "sit around a big table and talk to each other" format, we set up an in-room chat channel accessible over the WiFi network. We hosted the chat using Greg Elin's modifications to Manuel Kiessling's lovely ARSC (A Really Simple Chat) software. (Greg and I had used a similar setup in a somewhat different setting, and we were determined to experiment further at the social software event.)

The in-room chat created a two-channel experience -- a live conversation in the room, and an overlapping real-time text conversation. The experiment was a strong net positive for the group. Most social software is designed as a replacement for face-to-face meetings, but the spread of permanet (connectivity like air) provides opportunities for social software to be used by groups who are already gathered in the same location. For us, the chat served as a kind of social whiteboard. In this note, I want to detail what worked and why, what the limitations and downsides of in-room chat were, and point out possible future avenues for exploration.

The Setup

The setup was quite simple. We were working in a large open loft, seated around a ring of tables, and we connected a WiFi hub to the room's cable modem. Most of the participants had WiFi-capable laptops, and ARSC works in a browser, so there were no client issues. We put a large plasma screen at one end of the room.

We created a chat room for the event, and asked the participants using the chat to log in using their first name. In addition, we created a special username, Display, which we logged into a machine connected to the plasma screen. The Display interface had no text-entry field, suppressed control messages, and had its font set very large. This maximized screen real estate for user-entered messages, and made them readable even by participants sitting 10 meters away (though it minimized the amount of scroll-back visible on the plasma screen.)


Figure 1. The conference room.


Figure 2. Private and public screens.

Photos courtesy http://www.heiferman.com

We made the participants aware of the chat room at the beginning of the event, and set no other rules for its use (though at one point, we asked that people only use the chat room, saying nothing out loud for half an hour.) The chat room was available throughout the meeting. The first 10 minutes of the chat were the usual set of test messages, hellos, and other "My hovercraft is full of eels" randomness, but once the meeting got rolling, the chat room became an invaluable tool.

The Advantages

The chat room created several advantages.

1. It changed interrupt logic

Group conversations are exercises in managing interruptions. When someone is speaking, the listeners are often balancing the pressure to be polite with a desire to interrupt, whether to add material, correct or contradict the speaker, or introduce an entirely new theme. These interruptions are often tangential, and can lead to still more interruptions or follow-up comments by still other listeners. Furthermore, conversations that proceed by interruption are governed by the people best at interrupting. People who are shy, polite, or like to take a moment to compose their thoughts before speaking are at a disadvantage.

Even with these downsides, however, the tangents can be quite valuable, so if an absolute "no interrupt" rule were enforced, at least some material of general interest would be lost, and the frustration level among the participants consigned solely to passive listening would rise considerably.

The chat room undid these effects, because participants could add to the conversation without interrupting, and the group could pursue tangential material in the chat room while listening in the real room. It was remarkable how much easier it was for the speaker to finish a complex thought without being cut off. And because chat participants had no way of interrupting one another in the chat room, even people not given to speaking out loud could participate. Indeed, one of our most active participants contributed a considerable amount of high-quality observation and annotation while saying almost nothing out loud for two days.

O'Reilly Emerging Technology Conference.

2. "Note to self" became "Note to world"

The more successful a meeting, the more "note to self" moments happen, where a light goes off in someone's head, and they are moved to write the insight down for later examination. The chat channel provided an interesting alternative to personal note-taking, which was group note-taking. By entering "notes to self" into the chat, participants could both archive thoughts (the chat was logged) and to share those thoughts with the rest of the room to see what reactions they might spark. This is slightly different than simply altering interrupt logic, and more along the lines of Cory Doctorow's "outboard brain" idea, because in this case, the chat was capturing material that would not otherwise have been shared with the group.

3. High-quality text annotation

What the spoken word has in emotive quality, it lacks in precision. Much interesting material thrown out during the course of group conversations is difficult to capture in an ideal form. When taking notes, it's easy to misspell a name or mis-punctuate an URL, and things committed solely to memory can be difficult to retrieve later ("Somebody said something about a researcher in Oregon? Uraguay? The name began with a G ..."). Comments in the chat log solved these problems -- if the attendees were talking about Gerd Korteum's work, or the Kuro5hin website, the spelling and punctuation were unambiguous.

There were two additional effects that improved the quality of the text annotation. Because everyone was connected to the Web, not just the local chat, the participants could Google for Web sites and quotes before they posted. (At one point during the Friday session, a fierce rain started, and someone pasted the US Weather service advisory for the area into the chat.) And because ARSC turns URLs into links, the rest of the group could click on a link in the chat window when it was added, so that new material could be glanced at and bookmarked in context, rather than hours or days later.

The annotation was also affected by the one-way relation between the real world conversation and the chat. Though it's too early to know whether this was a bug or a feature, themes from the real world conversation were constantly reflected in the chat room, but almost never vice-versa. This suggests that the participants regarded the chat as a place for ancillary comments, rather than a separate but equal conversational space.

4. Less whispering, more \whispering

People whisper to one another during conferences, sometimes for good reasons ("What does UDDI mean?") and sometimes for not-so-good ones ("So this Estonian guy goes into a bar ..."). Like interrupting, however, a blanket "No whispering" ban would throw the good out with the bad, and would reduce the quality of the experience for the attendees. Furthermore, even when there is a good reason to whisper to someone, the larger the conference, the likelier it is you won't be seated next to them.

The \whisper command in ARSC means that, topologically, everyone is seated next to everyone else. By typing "\whisper Rusty," a participant could send a point-to-point message to Rusty without disrupting the meeting. Though the whispers weren't logged, an informal poll at the end of the second day showed that a large majority of chat room participants had used \whisper at some point.

Ironically, the effectiveness of the \whisper command was somewhat limited by the "split screen" focus between the room and the chat. Because \whisper requests went to the invitee's laptop, if someone was looking away from their screen for a few minutes, they would miss the invitation, since \whisper requests didn't go to the plasma screen. One user suggested the addition of a \pssst function of some sort to get someone's attention. Another possibility would be making a second \whisper-only window, so that \whisper conversations could be more asynchronous.

5. Alleviated boredom

Groups of people have diverse interests, so no matter how generally scintillating a meeting overall, at some point someone is going to find the subject at hand dull. The in-room chat helped alleviate this boredom, while keeping the participants talking to one another about the subject at hand.

This is the advantage hardest to understand in the abstract. When I talk about the in-room chat, people often ask "But isn't that distracting? Don't you want to make people pay attention to the speaker?" This is similar to the question from the early days of the Web: "But why have any outside links at all? Don't you want to make people stay on your site?"

Once you assume permanet, whether from Wifi, Richochet, or GPRS, this logic crumbles. Anyone with a laptop or phone can, if they are bored, turn to the Internet, and the question becomes "Given that attendees will be using the network, would you rather have them talking to one another, or reading Slashdot?" The people who gathered in NYC came to converse with one another, and the in-room chat provided a way for them to meet that goal even when they were not riveted by the main event.

The Context

Chat as a meeting tool isn't a universally good idea, of course. Every successful use of social software has environmental factors working in its favor.

First and foremost, the attendees were tech-savvy people who travel with WiFi-capable laptops and think about novel uses of social software, so they were inclined to want to use something like ARSC, even if only as an experiment. There was no resistance to trying something so odd and unproven, as there might be in less-techie groups.

The group was also self-motivated. Because their attendance was optional, they largely stayed on-topic. One can easily imagine that in a meeting where attendance is passive and forced ("The boss wants everyone in the conference room at 5:45") the contents of the chat would be much more tangential (to say nothing of libelous). Since most parliamentary rules, whether formal or informal, begin with the premise that only one person can speak at once, and then arrange elaborate rules for determining who can speak when, the presence of an alternate channel could severely disrupt highly-structured meetings, such as client conferences or legal negotiations. Whether this would be a bug or a feature depends on your point of view.

The goals of the meeting were in synch with the experience the chat room offered. We were not trying to forge a working group, get to consensus, or even converge on a small set of ideas. Indeed, the goals of the meeting were explicitly divergent, trying to uncover and share as much new material as possible in a short period. The chat room aided this goal admirably.

The scale of the meeting also worked in our favor. The group was large enough that sitting around a table with a laptop open wasn't rude or disruptive, but small enough that everyone could use a single chat room. At one point during the Saturday session, we broke into small groups to brainstorm around specific problems, and though there was no explicit request to do so, every single member of the group shut their laptop screens for two hours. Groups of six are small enough that all the members can feel engaged with the group, and the chat would have been much less useful and much more rude in that setting.

On the other hand, whenever things got really active on the chat channel (we averaged about four posts a minute, but it sometimes spiked to 10 or so), people complained about the lack of threading, suggesting that 30 was at or near an upper limit for participation.

Meeting Structure

There were also some more technical or formal aspects of the meeting that worked in our favor.

The plasma screen showing the Display view was surprisingly important. We had not announced the WiFi network or chat channel in advance, and we had no idea how many people would bring WiFi-capable laptops. (As it turned out, most did.) The plasma screen was there to share the chat room's contents with the disconnected members. However, the screen also added an aspect of social control -- because anything said in the chat room was displayed openly, it helped keep the conversation on-topic. Curiously, this seemed to be true even though most of the room was reading the contents of the chat on their laptop screens. The plasma screen created a public feeling without actually exposing the contents to a "public" different from the attendees.

During a brief post-mortem, several users reported using the plasma screen for chunking, so that they could mainly pay attention to the speaker, but flash their eyes to the screen occasionally to see what was in the chat room, taking advantage of the fact that most people read much faster than most speakers talk. (Viz. the horror of the speaker who puts up a PowerPoint page, and then reads each point.)

There were two bits of organizational structure that also helped shape the meeting. The first was our adoption of Jerry Michalski's marvelous "Red Card/Green Card" system, where participants were given a set of colored cards about 20 cm square in three colors, red, green, and gray. The cards were used to make explicit but non-verbal commentary on what was being said at the time. A green card indicates strong assent, red strong dissent, and gray confusion.

In an earlier experiment with ARSC, Greg added virtual cards; users could click on red or green icons and have those added to the chat. This proved unsatisfying, and for this meeting we went back to the use of physical cards. The use of the cards to indicate non-verbal and emotive reactions seemed to provide a nice balance with the verbal and less emotive written material. At one point, we spent half an hour in conversation with the only rule being "No talking." The entire room was chatting for 30 minutes, and even in that situation, people would physically wave green cards whenever anyone posted anything particularly worthy in the chat room.

While the no-talking experiment was interesting, it was not particularly useful. One of the participants whose work was being discussed in the chat (he had just finished talking when we entered the no-talking period) reported missing the actual verbal feedback from colleagues. The chat comments made about his ideas, while cogent, lacked the emotional resonance that makes face-to-face meetings work. By enforcing the no-talking rule, we had re-created some of the disadvantages of virtual meetings in a real room.

The other bit of organizational structure was borrowed from Elliott Maxwell and the Aspen Institute, where participants wanting to speak would turn their name cards vertically, thus putting comments in a queue. This was frustrating for many of the participants, who had to wait several minutes to react to something. This also severely altered interrupt logic. (At several points, people gave up their turn to speak, saying "the moment has passed.") Despite the frustration it caused, this system kept us uncovering new material as opposed to going down rat holes, and it made the chat room an attractive alternative for saying something immediate.

The Disadvantages

Though we found ARSC to be a useful addition to the meeting, there was an unusually good fit between the tool and the environment. For every favorable bit of context listed above, there is a situation where an in-room chat channel would be inappropriate. Meetings where the attention to the speaker needs to be more total would be problematic, as would situations where a majority of the audience is either not connected or uncomfortable with chat.

Even in this group, not everyone had a laptop, and for those people, the chat contents were simply a second channel of information that they could observe but not affect. Absolute ubiquity of the necessary hardware is some way off for even tech-savvy groups, and several years away, at least, for the average group. Any meeting wanting to implement a system like this will have to take steps to make the chat optional, or to provide the necessary hardware where it is lacking.

It may also be that increasing phone/PDA fusion will actually reduce the number of laptops present at meetings. Using social tools at events where phones are the personal device of choice will require significant additional thought around the issues of small screens, thumb keyboards, and other ergonomic issues.

In-room chat is unlikely to be useful for small groups (fewer than a dozen, at a guess), and its usefulness for groups larger than 30 may also be marginal (though in that case, ways of providing multiple chat rooms may be helpful).

Given that the most profound effects of the chat were in changing interrupt logic, many of the downsides came from the loss of interruption as a tool. As annoying as interruptions may be, they help keep people honest, by placing a premium on brevity, and on not spinning castles in the air. Without interruption, the speaker loses an important feedback mechanism, and may tend towards long-winded and unsupported claims. At the very least, the use of in-room chat puts a premium on strong moderation of some sort, to make up for the structural loss of interruption.

Perhaps most importantly, it will almost certainly be unhelpful for groups that need to function as a team. Because the two-track structure encourages a maximum number of new and tangential items being placed together, it would probably be actively destructive for groups where consensus was a goal. As Steven Johnson has noted about the event, the chat room moved most of the humor from real world interjections to network ones, which preserved the humor but suppressed the laughter. (Most of then time when people write "lol," they aren't.) Though this helps on the "interrupt logic" front, it also detracts from building group cohesion.

Next Steps

This experiment was relatively small and short, having been applied to one group over two days. It would be interesting to know what the effect would be for groups meeting for longer periods. On the first day, we averaged not quite three and a half posts a minute, occasionally spiking to nine or 10. On the second day, the average rose to just over four posts a minute, but the spikes didn't change, suggesting that users were becoming more accustomed to a steady pace of posting.

During the half-hour of chat only/no talking out loud, the average nearly tripled, to over 11 posts a minute, and occasionally spiking to 18, suggesting that during the normal sessions, users were paying what Linda Stone calls "continuous partial attention" to both the chat room and the real room, and with the structures of the real room artificially suppressed, the chat room exploded. (The question of whether the change in posting rate was uniform among all users is difficult to answer with the small sample data.)

Several additional experiments suggest themselves:

Conclusion

Real world groups are accustomed to having tools to help them get their work done -- flipcharts, white boards, projectors, and so on. These tools are typically used by only one person at a time. This experiment demonstrated the possibility of social tools, tools that likewise aid a real-world group, but that are equally accessible to all members at the same time. There are a number of other experiments one can imagine, from using the chat to accept input from remote locations to integrating additional I/O devices such as cameras or projectors. The core observation, though, is that under certain conditions, groups can find value in participating in two simultaneous conversation spaces, one real and one virtual.

Clay Shirky writes about the Internet and teaches at NYU's Interactive Telecommunications Program. He publishes a mailing list on Networks, Economics, and Culture at shirky.com/nec.html.


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