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In-Room Chat as a Social Tool
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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.

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