I start this post with the Wikipedia definition of chat to give a backdrop – “Online chat can refer to any kind of communication over the Internet, but is primarily meant to refer to direct one-on-one chat or text-based group chat (formally also known as synchronous conferencing), using tools such as instant messengers, Internet Relay Chat”.
Yesterday my mind was filled with thoughts about how this whole thing called “online chat” has evolved over years. There were times when people were hooked onto Instant Messengers from Yahoo, MSN, AOL and ICQ. People spent days and nights talking to strangers and friends in yahoo chat rooms. Then we had small changes in our instant messaging platforms and then in our chat rooms. After a while we had new features (emoticons, avatars etc), functionalities (groups, private messages, msn-yahoo compatibility) and the likes. The chat rooms too moved from just yahoo chat rooms to places like Meebo. Instant messengers went from free downloaded apps to SaaS. We can now log into yahoo messenger on the web itself!
However the reason for this post was not to just revisit the history in online chat, but to focus our attention to the way things have changed, the chat apps, the chat services, chat culture, and the chat mechanisms. I am going to list a few apps, services and tools that I came across in the recent past which I think are really changing the online chat context. This article from TechCrunch in 2006 lists The Six Biggest New Ideas In Chat and trust me we have had many more new things that have come up in the last three years. TinyChat, Omegle and a few others have added a new dimension to online chat. With TinyChat you can start a chat room from out of the blue with just using your twitter id and share the unique chat room link amongst the people whom you want to invite and there you go. Omegle is another concept I came across recently; from the look of it, you may not find anything extraordinary but the fact that one can just join in without any login credentials (as a complete stranger) and the Omegle system will connect you with another random system picked stranger (absolutely anonymous person) and you start chatting. This is as eccentric as it can get when it comes to chatting to strangers.
These days my usage of emails and IM for personal reasons has gone down so much so that I actually don’t have any IM client on my system and I hardly mail people unless it’s something I can’t do over Facebook/Twitter/Phone Call/Text Message. I still do use GTalk or Yahoo messenger, but very rarely and is via browser. And this is one of the important points I am coming to. With the evolution of social networking sites like Orkut and Facebook, and with the kind of functionalities they provide to communicate and collaborate, most of my needs of chatting are taken care of on their platform. For that matter I don’t use Facebook chat that much as well. Personally I prefer the asynchronous mode of communication! 🙂 The comments, the shares, the likes, the tags and the walls have taken over my chatting habits. Only if I need to communicate with someone in a really long important conversation which I don’t want to do it over a phone, then I prefer chatting. With these social media tools most of the activities in your life which you would have shared via a chat room are all done on platforms like Facebook and everyone participates. Having said that IM still has its own advantages and it will still remain the preferred platform for one-to-one communication for some time. Social Media platforms like Facebook, Orkut and Twitter were not enough that we now have Google’s Wave coming up and we all have seen what we can do on it when it comes to online chat.
With so many changes seen on the web when it comes to communication and collaboration for personal reasons, I wonder how things would be when we see this same change take over our enterprises. We already are seeing a serious movement in the interest, awareness and adoption of social media tools inside the enterprises. These Enterprise2.0 tools are definitely changing the game when it comes to the way employees communicate and collaborate. So are we going to see a similar change inside the enterprise when it comes to the use of internal messengers and emails behind the firewalls? Already I would prefer to use Yammer/discussion forums for communicating and sharing rather than inviting 10 people onto a group chat using the IM service. And as we all know, having these chats/discussions (formal ones at least) on platforms like Enterprise2.0 will surely ensure a proper Knowledge Management approach. Most of those informal, coffee machine chats will be saved and thus allow the capture of what we call the tacit knowledge.
I have already moved a long way from where I started in this blog post, but the matter of the fact is that with new social media tools, online chat and the way we have conversations, have changed. Also, with social media tools, online chat will reduce and this will impact not only on the web but also inside the firewalls in enterprises. In fact with today’s social media tools, the asynchronous mode of communication is picking up in comparison to the earlier instant communication and asynchronous is becoming the new instant!

Nikhil Nulkar is a knowledge management consultant within Capgemini and is passionate about web2.0, specifically in enterprise2.0 & social media. Want to know what he is up to? Follow him on Twitter