Chat is terrible; don't use it! - backed by science
With the rise of Slack and mobile messengers like WhatsApp and Telegram chat has become omnipresent. With it being in background of every smartphone, tablet and laptop, no wonder a lot of people look towards it when assessing how to organise their work and life. But before you go down that rabbit whole, assessing whether WhatsApp, Signal, Telegram or Slack has the better reply-feature, let me tell you: Please do not use chat. It’s terrible and not the right medium for what you want to do..
Re “backed by science”: this is mostly a rant - I am not a scholar, nor academic and I am taking some academic findings and apply them to scenario rather liberaly - I might not be correct in doing so. Scientists have just started to look at team chat (mainly in the context of games) and we are far from being able to draw definite conclusions. So, though this is informed by scientific knowledge, this is still my mainly opinion.
Before I explain to you why not to use chat for X, let’s first agree on what. By chat I mean unstructured, primariy text based, short message conversation style between a limited set of participants (even if large). This includes everything from: IRC; the old-school messengers of 2000th (ICQ, Jabber/XMPP, etc); “Team”-Chats (Slack, Mattermost, Rocket.Chat, Matrix and alike); to the modern mobile-first Personal Chats like WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, Signal (Groups), Wire, Threema and Telegram (excluding their broadcasting ‘channels’).
Unstructured here means the main format being a lengthy time-based stream of messages. Even though you might be able to reply to specific entries, this is more of an addon than actual structure of the conversation. This explictly excludes hybrids like facebook groups or zulip, which have a vastly different way of displaying and structuring conversations (though some of the general problems still apply).
Here’s why chat is terrible (in general)
Now that we’ve a pretty solid common understanding of the medium and feature space, let’s take a look at it: the primary purpose of this medium is to facilitate continous conversation. Its linear time-based latest-is-important style enforces that. With that, modern-day chat stands in the tradition of IRC and SMS - the latest generation just made it mobile-first again. Chat is like an on-going conversation you are having, on- and off, with your friend or coworker: always right there next with you - even in the bathroom.
Text is terrible for conversation
We humans usually communicate by speaking to the other person in front of us. You’ve probably heard that most commmunication is non-verbal. And though that 7%-rule is BS, yet other studies confirm non-verbal makes up up to 70% of communication, that all is lacking in text. That’s why we geeky socially-awkward like it so much: there’s just the written word, no social cues. And that is what makes chat so darn bad. There isn’t even a tone of voice or emphasis in grammar transported with text.
These clues are highly important to us humans! Not only to understand the other, but even when communicating we already incorporate that feedback: while I’m speaking, I might notice my peer is clenching up, so I adapt what I am saying to make them more comfortable and defuse a potentially misunderstanding-based confrontation long before it happens. This highly important self-regulation allows us to continue the conversation in real-life. Text-based communication lacks it and has no stand-in for it. Thus, a lot of important information is not communicated, a lot of adapting doesn’t happen, the conversation is way less dynamic, a lot easier to derail and harder to follow.
Chat is too immediate
This is especially true for mobile messengers, but similarly bad for team messaging when the chat window is open in background at all times (which is kind of what is expected in these scenarios these days). Not only do these notifications often act as disruptions, as it is an on-going continous conversation, we just keep talking where we left of. No “hello, how are you?”-smalltalk or checking in. Again, us nerdy creeps like that efficiency.
However, in regular conversation the premeeting talk takes an important role: they allow the participant to “arrive” in the conversation. It gives time to (mentally) close whatever they were tuned to before, or vent first, to get any emotional state off their chest and go into that other conversation refreshed. Without this mechanism, this mental break we create, we humans keep whatever emotional state we are in into that conversation and project it on that. In chat, we don’t get the time to transition into the conversation. Similarly, when we have multiple conversations like this going on at the same time, we have to switch context a lot and fast. As a result, any agitation from one conversation then quickly leaks into another.
From the other side, you just never know what emotional state someone is in, when you send them the message. They could be receptive to it, or it might be a very bad time. You just don’t know.
Chat sounds more attacking than it is
Because of the severe lack of many important non-verbal and tonal clues regarding the conversation our lizzard brain doesn’t know whether that situation is dangerous or not (unless we are absolutely comfortable with the person we are talking to, yet, in most group conversations we are not). When we are talking on the phone this lack is translated into physical energy. It’s the reason we are pacing around, and why we hate overhearing one sided phone conversations on the trains and in public transport.
Similarly, in most chat situations we are glued to the device and can’t move around. Even if we are sitting on the comfy couch with the phone, the “conversation” needs our eyes, takes our focus, prevents us from moving. This constraint is uncomfortable. We are not at ease. And the brain is projecting those emotions onto the conversation. Thus it will make the voice reading that message in your head sound a lot more attacking and alarming than the person intended it to be.
Chat is time consuming
Remember how text isn’t our primary way of communicating? While many more people are literate now, very few have learned to properly write (a SMS) ever. I can’t find the quote anymore, but I heard a researcher say that until the 1990th, the regular western worlder used to write a couple of dozen letters in their lifetime, most of them formal and a few to family and friends far away. Today, everyone is writing little snipptes of text all the time and, yet, never learned to properly write them.
They were referring to E-Mails, but I think chat just excerbates that problem. Same as for a bad E-Mails, the result of a bad chat messages is more chat messages: to understand what they wanted; to clarify or worse, to figure after a lenghty conversation that the word used intially was mmisunderstood. We’ve never learnt how to properly converse over chat. Actual speech is a lot more efficient (being produced and consumed at the same time) and can be interrupted at the point where it needs to be, to clarify and agree on meanings - “I think you mean ABC here instead of XYZ”.
Chat is an information sinkhole
All messages are created equal. That means this important announcement or file you shared is pushed out of view as quickly by that picture of the cat or doggo as any other message. Sure, in many groups chats you can “pin” messages, but that itself becomes confusing once there’s more than one. We often share information to look it back up later though. Chat is a terrible way to do that.
Unless you have dedicated channels for specific things, you will spend an exorbitant amount of time searching for the thing again. This is often multiplied when information is send via spoken messages - “What was that address again? It must be in one of these sound messages…”. Searching and archiving is terrible in chat, there’s little (if any) ways to structure or use any taxonomy. I’ve extended the saying “a Wiki is where information goes to die” with “and chat is where information goes when it doesn’t want to be found again” in recent years.
Don’t use chat for X
Okay, so you still want to use Slack/Telegram/Signal/WhatsApp? Well, here’s why you shouldn’t use it for the specific scenario.
Don’t use chat for discussions
I already explained above why the messages we receive are not “perceived” as neutral. On top, they are also super unstructured. There is no clear topic, messages are sent out of order, refer back to things before or at different points, switching back to ealier things without actual point of reference. Even if you are right there when it happens, discussions are hard to follow and it becomes entirel impossible to follow the conversation afterwards.
While a discussion is ongoing, seeing “the other is typing” increases the pressure to write ourselfes or are nervously waiting for the message - what will they say? All this excerbates the emotional component a lot. We write ourselfes into rage, even among friends. Afterwards no one can explain why it’s gotten so intense.
Further more, with the strong presence that the last message in a conversation has - just standing there whenever you look at it - we are inclined to repeat our point, just to not have that other statement sit there. I’ve seen many conversations run in circles because of this (and the intense emotional component), even though the people had already agreed. There just is no clear end, no visible resolution, no closure. You can’t close that thread and archive it. Chat wants to continue.
And then, the third person, who was in a meeting, comes back into it and restarts the conversation with a classic “I wasn’t able to read up on all of this, but I’d just like to say that …”. Reopening the conversation, as it was never clearly closed. And it was literally impossible to follow what was discussed and whether and how it was resolved.
Don’t use chat to build your community
We’ve seen this terrible trend of - specifically - using Slack to build your online community. Not only is Slack clearly aimed for team chat and not public conversation, chat in general lacks moderation tooling. Chat is meant for people, who know each other already and come together on a shared understanding. That’s a vastly different sphere than a public or self-signup communication compound of total strangers.
Even if that annoying dude stops the discussion in the group channel, nothing is stopping them from just messaging the other participant directly and keep on pushing the conversation. Harrasment is - for the emotional components mentioned before - rampant in these spheres and the tooling just lacks any support in managing that.
In the world of most team chats, there is a legal framework of the company in question to moderate that: they can fire their employees and restrict access on a higher level. For a community chat no such framework exists, nor the channels for victims to even report on it. Please do not create a space for harrassers to abuse so easily (it also reflects bad on your community).
Don’t use chat for project management
Please. Don’t. Who told you this was a good idea? Geeee. Haven’t you ready anything I wrote above?
There’s no structure in the conversations; you can’t find information that is a day old (“who posted that PDF?”), there is no way to comment, collaborate or discuss an item; there is no overview of tasks and their status - to figure out if something changed in status you have to look through all messages… Why would you think this is a good idea?
Don’t @ me.
Here’s what chat is good for:
- for support: direct chat with your customer or in a help channel for the community is often a much more immediate, efficient, quicker and cleaner way than a forum with outdated information
- Your family chat to share pictures from your cat, to send each other smaller updates of how life is going is delightful - keep external news out of it!
- To quickly coordinate for a specific purpose, for e.g. when meeting somewhere, for a call or after a conference
- To share quick tidbits of information relevant to set group of people, e.g. the next time you will go to the soccer field for practice
- to keep up to date with friends in family in an irregular quick-note fashion.