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In-Room Chat as a Social Tool

by Clay Shirky

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.

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