Small talk in Tinychat: from twitter to chat

I had one of those eureka moments yesterday trying out tinychat from twitter. Tinychat is a “disposable” chatroom launched from a tinyurl. You tweet the room’s address and wait to see who shows up. Several of us got in there yesterday morning and had quite a lively discussion about tinychat.

I decided to try it again in the afternoon after blogging — just to see if tinychat might serve as a kind of live commenting alternative to blog comments. The afternoon chat was very different however, and got me thinking about the whole value proposition and its success requirements.

I’ll make this a short one, and do the social interaction design on it in a separate post. (There are some concepts we can take from real world interaction dynamics and forms of talk as a means of anticipating design challenges and pitfalls to going live).

First off, there’s a strong novelty factor in tinychat. Just going from tweetdeck to a chatroom was pretty cool. Even more cool was to change register and chat with twitter followers. There’s a payoff to stepping up the interaction from the “l’m talking” mode of twitter to the “we’re talking” mode of chat. Tinychat shed a bit of light on how differently conversational twitter is. We can feel as if we’re in conversation over twitter. Switching to chat meant actually being in conversation — it feels different.

Going live is not only a matter of switching apps, it also breaks the frame. If twitter is an open talk tool, then chat is enclosed. Upon entering the chatroom, each of us became bound by the higher presence demands of chat. Conversational etiquette and the many and rich aspects of talk and giving face take over. The continuity of presence in chat replaces the discontinuity of twitter, just as conversation replaces tweeting (as the mode of interaction).

I wondered whether this change of frame and change of app would be a gate on tinychat’s usability. To many users, and in many situations, frame changes are a usability gate. (The reason most of us don’t invite friends to chat in Facebook, even when we can see very well that they’re online.) Change of frame is a change of commitment.

Chat is also much more susceptible to who’s chatting. And here an unintended design consequence comes into the picture. With Tinychat you invite people following you — not people you follow. Those who show up may include people who want to talk to you more than you want to talk to them. The people you have been seeing on twitter are not the people who have seen your tinychat invitation (unless you follow those who follow you). And as soon as one other person appears in a chatroom, you are obliged to change your conversational register and be nice. (That I’m exposing the mechanics of online conversation is not a reflection on my experience yesterday!! I’m merely extracting some principles from the experience.)

if one could invite specific people to a private tinychat room (still would be from people who follow you), the service would be a lot more interesting. Because in chat it’s all about who’s in the room. And when people appear in a chatroom that they don’t want to stick around in, they will often background the chat but not actually leave the room (for reasons of etiquette). So there can be a lot of waiting in chat. And a lot of wondering what to talk about.

It would be interesting to think about use cases where going to chat makes sense — has some purpose and topic. Chat is a lot faster than twitter. But it’s a lot more contingent on other users: who they are, how they are related to you, and what they are interested in talking about.

Chat works best when it is bound by a context — and over twitter it is difficult to create context. As long as tinychat is available to whoever wants to show up, or until tinychat can set up uses and contexts, it’s likely to feel like randoms in a waiting room to most.

Note: This blog post belongs to a series on “status culture.” The posts examine status updates, facebook activity feeds, news feeds, twitter, microblogging, lifestreaming, and other social media applications and features belonging to conversation media. My approach will be user-centric as always, and tackle usability and social experience issues (human factors, interaction design, interface design) at the heart of social interaction design. But we will also use anthropology, sociology, psychology, communication and media theories. Perhaps even some film theory.
The converational trend in social networking sites and applications suggests that web 2.0 is rapidly developing into a social web that embraces talk (post IM, chat, and email) in front of new kinds of publics and peer groups. User generated content supplied to search engines is increasingly produced conversationally. Social media analytics tools provide PR and social media marketing with means to track and monitor conversations. Brands are interested in joining the conversation feeds, through influencers as well as their own twitter presence.
This changing landscape not only raises interesting issues for developers and applications (such as the many twitter third party apps), but for social practices emerging around them. So we will look also at design principles for conversation-based apps, cultural and social trends, marketing trends, and other examples of new forms of talk online.
These blog posts will vary in tenor, from quick reflections on experiences to more in-depth approaches to design methodology for conversational social media.

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  • Sam

    This is great! Thanks so much. Hope it will continue.

    you can get interesting post about web usability and technology on my Web Usability Blog.