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An Introduction to Chat

by Nancy White
Updated 8/01

Introduction to Chat

Chat has a bad reputation as the tool of fast-typing teens, vacuous banter, or sex talk. The bad news is much of that is true. The good news is that synchronous (same time) chat can also be a great tool for online collaboration, learning and socializing. Chat can provide a different "textured" experience that can be particularly helpful for building social relationships and working on item closure for small groups.

Here are a few types of chat situations -- there are more!

  • Protocol Meetings - meetings using specific protocols which help organize the flow/interaction. An example of the protocol used at http://www.women2women.com can be found below.
  • Non-protocol Meetings (smaller groups) - free form interactions, most often by groups of fewer than 6 with previous experience working together.
  • Informal Socializing and "Get to Know" Sessions (a staple for open online communities)
  • Scheduled Theme Sessions - good especially for question and answer (Q&A)
  • Guest Speakers with Audience Interaction - smaller audiences of 20-30
  • Guest Speakers With Moderated Interaction - for large "auditorium" events where questions are screened and posed only by the moderator.

Preparing for Your First Chat

Here are some issues to think about chat before and after your chat sessions:

  • It can be difficult to "go deep" with chat when there are more than 2 or 3 participants. In practice, you can only count on a limited number of words per response. Plan your agenda accordingly.
  • A good chat host can help bring order to a group of people who are talking all over the place. Agendas, or using clear, focused questions are some approaches to consider.
  • Silence can kill a chat unless the group norm is accustomed to gaps in the action.
  • To avoid "dead time," type in short bursts and send it to the screen that way, with ellipsis points... The ellipses indicate you have more to say.  For logs, you can always edit these together for smoother reading.
  • Use people's names to respond to their comments so they know you "heard" them.
  • One trick for a slow typist is to type her first line while waiting her turn. Then send when the turn begins.
  • Consider how you might coordinate chat with asynchronous (different time) discussions. The use of chat logs or transcripts, the use of chat to bring a discussion to closure for voting, etc.
  • When you have a chat guest, it is important to know how fast they can type. They might be compelling, but if they are too slow, it kills that chat. You can use typists if necessary. Consider a practice session with guests as a key tool for success.

Chat Protocols

Chat protocol is the use of certain typed conventions to keep a chat organized and to give everyone a chance to "speak". These are samples from the protocol used at http://www.women2women.com

  • If you want to speak, please "raise your hand" by putting
? onscreen for a question
! onscreen for a comment
The host will call on you when it's your turn.
  • If you have more to say, but want to get part of your thoughts on screen, end your post with ... (ellipsis) to indicate you have more to say.
  • Type "ga" at the end of your post to indicate you are finished. "ga" stands for "go ahead."
  • Use shorthand if the group is familiar with it to economize in space/time -- terms might include:
  • BRB (be right back)
  • LOL (laughing out loud)
  • AFAIC (as far as I'm concerned)
  • F2F (face to face)
  • IMO (in my opinion)
  • If appropriate, use emoticons. You can read about emoticons at http://www.fullcirc.com/community/emoticons.htm.

Tips from Sue Boettcher, a seasoned chat host

  • A chat host has to be alert, paying attention in real time. 
  • A busy chat can be exhausting.
  • Start out slow, with small chats involving just a few people, to get the hang of the tool.
  • Invite people you know to help you practice your hosting role.
  • Schedule short first chats, with announced start and end times.  Actually leave at the end.
  • Open a topic in a discussion board where you can get feedback on how you did with the people who attended.
  • Don't start with a highly controversial subject.  Work up to it because strong emotions can take over in a chat.
  • Hosting chat is a time-compacted version of hosting a discussion group. One of the things you can do when you host a discussion, and you're getting steamed or you 're not sure how to get conversation going again, is to logoff, go out for a walk, and think about it. You  can't do that at all when you are hosting chat. You're on all the time.
  • In chat, you're likely to see the full range of possibilities within a month. In discussion boards, it could take up to a year to gain that sort of experience. Likewise, chat hosts who need work on their skills could do a lot more damage, a lot faster, than someone who is occasionally making mistakes in a discussion board.
  • The culture of chat needs to be more forgiving than it is in most places. Not just for hosts, either. Hosts and users need to grant more slack to other users who make mistakes. I've seen rooms of people who meet regularly get sooooo tired of age/sex checks that they jump on anything that remotely looks like that. Sometimes people don't know that's not part of the culture of the room. Sometimes they have seen it once elsewhere and think this is a cool way to get conversation started. But if they are lambasted or ridiculed right at the start, they don't have any space to modify their actions.
  • Chats have a fast pace and 'live' quality that differs from discussion boards...and you can't very well scribble when you're in chat.
  • Hosting a chat requires focused attention for the duration, and you have to think fast on your feet.
  • A good thing about having a co-host - you can send them a quick private message that you're slipping off  to the toilet or whatever, and then slip on back in without missing a beat. When you're hosting alone, you've got to plan that stuff  ahead ;)
  • As far as learning from mistakes go, hosting is something that simply has to be done on the fly, leading to a constant game of "I coulda I shoulda."
  • The best continuing education for hosts is simply a trading of experiences. One person tells what went wrong in her chat, how she handled it, how well it worked and what other things occurred to her later. Another tells of an experience that had him stymied and asks for advice. The rest of the group brainstorms or tells how they handled a similar incident.
  • The building of good habits is a matter of repetition. In that area, continuing education is exactly the same as basic education. I'm not big on sports analogies but I remember reading an anecdote from a top comedy writer and amateur tennis player who used to watch the coaches of tennis stars whisper words of advice in their champions' ears during major matches. He used to wonder what pearls of advanced wisdom these great coaches were giving to their great players. One day, when he was a star in his own field himself, he was at Wimbledon, right up front, and got to hear just what the coaches were saying. They were saying "your swing is too stiff," "follow through on that serve," "watch your grip!" They were largely bringing the players minds back to the essential basics.

Dealing with Disruptions in Chat

  • Tell everybody else in the room how to use their software to ignore disruption (don't name the person if you can help it)
  • Distract the disruptor in private messages or instant messages (IMs)
  • Try to involve the disrupter in the discussion in a positive way
  • Ask the disrupter politely but firmly to stop
  • Use humor to ask them to stop
  • Stay cool, don't let them see you sweat

How to Learn to Host Chats in Five Steps

So you want to get up to speed to host chats? Here are some strategies:
  1. Orientation (Read about it -- what is a host, basic hosting concepts - these extend beyond chat, observe chats in action on different sites)
  2. Techno issues (Learn how to use the chat software, macro software, using Java, etc. Know how to troubleshoot technical problems. There are ALWAYS technical problems!)
  3. Social issues (Practice specific strategies for dealing with disruptions, etc.)
  4. Simulations (Practice and take risks in a controlled situation)
  5. Mentoring (Practice in real-life situation with mentor/cohost to provide coaching and feedback.)

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