In 1988, the first version of Internet Relay Chat, or IRC, made widely available a new and yet instantly familiar mode of communication: groups of people choosing each other and then typing together in real-time. From then on, the chat was everywhere. Mainstream service providers embraced chat. So did email services. Early social networks either had chat features or were populated by users who also had accounts on popular instant message services.
Smartphones immediately became the ultimate chatting machine. The biggest social apps of the 2010s, with their various spins on posting, sharing, and following, all eventually built either chat features or chat-like DM services, some of which were spun off. Livestreaming? That’s about chat, too. For people who have spent enough time online — or, probably, most people under the age of 50 — chatting in a live context is as natural as talking on the phone, and quite a bit more common.
Many of the problems people identify with social media can be traced not to chats but to feed. It’s too stimulating. It’s too boring. It makes us loathe ourselves. It requires us to vet disinformation or fall into its snares. It forces us to endure the worst parts of celebrity. It’s the opposite of a social experience: It’s alienating.
Posting to a feed is a contrived and profoundly strange way to communicate with, say, close friends or family members, who are combined into the same audience, assembled to do what, exactly? Consume your broadcast? Talk with you in semi-public? These dynamics are social media’s genuine novelty; they’re very powerful, obviously, and lucrative for the people who enable them. They’re also what we usually seem to be talking about when we talk about how the internet makes us feel, particularly when that feeling is bad.
Chatting isn’t posting. It unfolds in real-time, or at least can if both parties are present. Chats select themselves — they’re conversations you enter with either one other person or many. You join, you leave. You have the freedom to join and leave. Self-selected groups tend to share something — if not a set of well-understood norms and expectations, at least a common interest or purpose.
They’re private by default and tend to have a great deal of latitude to set their own rules, even on big centralized services. You can see everything from the chat, and nobody can see you.
Then there are benefits that feel almost too obvious to write out. Chatting is like hanging out. It’s like sitting at a table. It’s like going on a walk. It’s like things that, whatever happiness or misery they cause, don’t leave us with questions about what we were even doing in the first place.
Contrast that with life on the feed, where each post is a performance informed by the user’s specific and invisible perspective of a platform they don’t understand.
Chat’s blessing and the curse have always been that it’s hard to monetize talking — it would feel, much more than an ad in a feed, like an interruption. It’s also hard to improve upon chatting. Services can work better than others, or have a few more features. But the best chat service is, as it always has been, the one you don’t have to think about using. We were chatting before the feeds took over, and we’ll still be chatting when they’re gone.