The word “chat” emerged in the 1500s and can mean to converse familiarly or, less charitably, to talk idly—to babble. Now, half a millennium later, we’ve all had the last three years to master the chat function in remote meetings. The chat function has proven to be a boon and bane for online conversation. True to etymology, at its best, chat allows for a familiar and easily written conversation to accompany the verbal one. At its worst, it’s an out-of-control, sometimes mean-spirited babble that distracts all from common discussion.

I struggled with this recently in a public dialogue among diverse interests in a task group of eight core members and a few regular additional public attendees. We allowed chat to be freeform until some task group members felt it had gotten out of hand. I was reluctant to turn it off, because it allowed for more participation, but when we did, good results followed! While jointly drafting a detailed set of recommendations, the removal of chat let the group become less distracted, less rattled by chat comments, less argumentative, and more constructive. Improved dialogue with the touch of a button!

So, how should moderators of online conversations handle this parallel processing of information and opinion in chat?

Chat can add value to many conversations. Because verbal time in any setting is limited to one person after another, the chat function allows additional voices and ideas to enter the dialogue. This can mean more participation, more inclusion, and easier engagement for those who may find it harder to get a word in edgewise. To some degree, it levels the playing field between introverts and extroverts. The need to type out thoughts can also help people be more concise in their input.

On the other hand, it can be difficult for many people to manage the multiple and simultaneous tracks of dialogue. For those busy typing away, chat can cause them to miss important verbal conversation. And for some, chat can be a tool to wreak conversational havoc. Here’s what I’ve learned:

Chat in remote meetings is useful to:

  • Supplement the “raise hand” function when someone wishes to be called on
  • Ask for technical help
  • Identify and track questions during a presentation
  • List citations and references, providing links to resources and other relevant websites
  • Supplement the verbal conversation with ideas and thoughts when a group is working well together
  • Brainstorm ideas and considerations for a particular topic or issue (one can also use other tools like Mentimeter or Ideaflip, but chat is simple)
  • Elevate the energy of a group, such as when everyone shares praise and appreciation in the chat after a great presentation
  • Draft text or alternative text when reviewing a document together
  • Share private process thoughts or concerns with the facilitator or presenter

Chat is less useful, if not downright corrosive, when used to:

  • Make unrelated comments
  • Create a running dialogue with others while participants also try to do so verbally
  • Argue with those speaking verbally
  • Cast doubt or skepticism on speakers and guests
  • Distract and “unbalance” those participants tasked to lead the discussion

We think it’s important, especially in public process, to set expectations for chat decorum. Here are a few ideas:

  • Use chat to supplement, not take over, the verbal conversation
  • Chat is for information and addition, not criticism and subtraction
  • Respect and civility apply to both the written and spoken word
  • Use chat for specific kinds of talk (brainstorming, assembling questions during presentations) but not for others (addressing challenging differences, focusing on joint tasks like reviewing)
  • The moderator reserves the right to turn off chat if it becomes a distraction

However you decide to use chat, now that it’s likely forever with us, act deliberately and set expectations early. Otherwise, chat’s babble can undermine a group’s good work!