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:
Chat is less useful, if not downright corrosive, when used to:
We think it’s important, especially in public process, to set expectations for chat decorum. Here are a few ideas:
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!