Monday, January 3, 2011

Chat Happens: In your Facebook

(the following originally appeared at but was moved here in 2011. It is part of a 2009 TESOL presentation: Uncharted but breathtaking: Chat in writing class which can be accessed here.)

I believe that the introduction of chat into Facebook in April of 2008 will turn out to be an important milestone for many reasons (1). We haven't seen all of the repercussions of the move yet; as I write, in early January of 2009, a huge number of people have found and joined Facebook (150 million, according to Zuckerman) (2), but much fewer of them actively use it, or have noticed how addictive it is; many, like me, spent six months or so on it before they really began to discover how much they could do with it (3). Fewer still have noticed the little chat window down on the right, which allows the user to be open to any of his/her network of friends, pop in and start talking to whoever is there and active, at any time of day. Thus I have struck up conversations with my sister in New York, a best friend who I grew up with, an old friend who moved to Scotland many years ago, etc., all during this break, from my living-room chair. But now that Facebook and its chat are accessible from a mobile phone, I could have done this also between sessions here at TESOL, or waiting for a bus (4).

The implications of the world as we know it moving into Facebook for its social interaction are various; let me name a few. First, genuine friendships that one establishes anywhere can last forever. Students can study in another country without being cut off from their friends and family. Writing and chat in particular play much more crucial roles in people's lives. Things that used to happen on the phone or in storefronts, or on television, are more likely to happen online and be readily accessible from Facebook. People will meet people, establish friendships, act rudely and apologize, show pictures, express affection, and grieve in the public square, i.e. in Facebook. There are many more; I canÕt pretend to identify them. A couple more interesting things about Facebook and its stunning development: first, the so-called "techies" don't really like it, because it's dominated by social behavior; it's primarily social. But it's huge with almost everyone else, because people can connect with each other, and use it for so much. It's easier than Christmas cards, it's cheaper than the phone, and it allows you to control your appearance; people like to feel that sense of control to really succeed socially.

I have come to see Facebook as a new main street, like a student center, in that in gathering and sustaining a large number of users it becomes much more desirable for a large number more; it's akin to a town, or a mall, designing a park for its center that becomes a successful focal point for social interaction. When it works, everyone knows it, and the town goes from "dispersed" to "having a center."

The implications of Facebook moving chat right into its heart are also various and in my mind important. Six months ago, I could get chat only on Firefox; thus, it was limited, but now it's not (5). Though it's blocked in some countries and in most schools, the only other way it's limited is that people don't all quite know everything they can do with it, or how easily they can do it. In other words, the minute people realize how powerful it is, people will use it for a number of functions (6). Clearly young people are more attuned to this than older ones; how many teachers give assignments without assuming that all students are instantly connected to all others, at all times, at will? Silly me, I always assumed that students did homework at home, alone, at their desk.

Facebook's phenomenal rise in popularity will itself bring more changes, among them the changes Facebook itself will have to make to adjust to its own expanded clientele. Having chat at the bottom of one's window means one can connect instantly with whichever of one's friends happens to be online (7). However this was meaningless when I only had a dozen or so friends; chances were unlikely that any of them was online at any given moment. Now that a huge number of old friends, family, former students and current acquaintances are there, I have a number of choices every time I open the program and "go online." And I also have a sense of unease every time I see one of my friends online, and don't go over and start talking to them (as I would feel if I passed through a restaurant, without talking to an old friend who I had happened to see there). Facebook, in its quest to make itself more attractive to all users at all moments, in all stages of being drawn into the experience, must juggle all of these various concerns.

Most chats aren't multi-user chats; this is, as I write, part of the Facebook chat system. And this could be the biggest difference between Facebook chat and others; many of our students come from environments where multi-user chats are the rule, and one-on-one chats are quite intimidating. But it doesn't have to be this way; Facebook could change this (if they haven't already) at any moment, or make the user's ability to engineer his/her own experience more clearly marked or encouraged. Similarly, when I was talking to my son, but he went over and dropped a comment on someone's picture, I saw that he had done that. The chat client told me that, though it didn't have to. It told me his most recent "status update," but it didn't tell me who else he might have been chatting with at the time; in other words, it delivered to me certain elements of his behavior, but not others. So there are ways that Facebook could play with this system and change it, and undoubtedly they will. So far they have proven to be very clever, very innovative, and very responsive to the needs and desires of their users; however, the most immediate problems I face as a teacher are as follows.

First is this: as a teacher, I present a different face to students that I might to my best friends. I want to be friends with my students, but not all friends are alike. People who want to say, in all honesty, that they are hung over, can't do it when half their friends are their students. We can respond to this challenge in several ways: first, by establishing two different profiles (FB doesn't approve of this). Second, keep quiet about things we don't want students knowing, or say it only in the chats, which are not recorded (as of now). Three: pressure FB into making alternate profiles or allowing grades of friendships.

As a teacher, I need records of what happens in chats. I have found transcripts very useful for several reasons. First: sometimes people ask me something and I just miss the question, because I'm excited. Or I misinterpret the question and respond too quickly. In chat you are sometimes dealing with multiple threads or strains at one time; you lose things. Transcripts help you sort it out and answer the questions later. Second: it is of more than passing interest to me what students have mastered, the degree to which they have mastered it, whether they can function, be polite, get what they want, etc. in this environment. It's all in the transcript. Transcripts are good; they are our friends. Facebook doesn't have one, that I know of. Tapped In does. Meebo doesn't, that I know of. Sometimes places have it but don't make it easy to find or access; Tapped In e-mails it to members, which is very convenient, but if you lose it or want it months later, you can still get it but it's very hard to find. It matters. If you are dealing with minors, you must have transcripts; it's the law. Think about it; it protects you. And, for this reason alone, I take my students to Tapped In rather than Facebook (see Kinds of chats) (8).

The biggest implication is this. Linguists can tell us that chat is a medium; it is not inherently seedy, sexual, ungrammatical, immoral, or careless, any more than a conversation on the street is (9). Chat is just a medium; it's a way to communicate. When it's the easiest or best way, more people will use it. Now that it is on main street (Facebook), they'll use chat much more often, for much more of their daily business, and then people will see chat for what it is (10). It will be associated less and less with seediness as time goes by, and time is going by very quickly. I'll wager that our students will need chat the minute they leave our program. So, I'm teaching them chat skills now.

For the esl/efl teacher specifically, implications of the Facebook/chat revolution, so to speak, are much more cloudy. I can state with assurance that my students are going to need to know and use Facebook for successful integration into today's social life in the university. That doesn't mean that I'm ready to move every class onto it, though. Facebook management, and social changes brought on by Facebook, can be lively topics in classes, but students don't necessarily want their classes moving into their social realm, any more than they want their classmates seeing their laundry. So what should a teacher do? Teach chat skills. Teach students how to talk about what they do and why. Help people notice what Facebook is doing to our culture, our lives and our futures (11).

Most of us who began teaching in the communicative era succeeded when we mastered the affective aspects of conversation. When we made our students comfortable communicating with us and with each other, they did, and pretty soon they felt better about themselves and their ability, and were more ready to go out in the real world and use their skills. The same is true with chat, which is the written version of conversational language. the affective aspects come first. The skills and the language may be new to students, but they have to have confidence to succeed; they also need cultural flexibility and a willingness to take risks. To encourage these we have to create an environment where mistakes are ok and we are on their side in overcoming their inhibitions. Teaching chat is a communicative activity, like teaching beginning students to go to a restaurant and order a meal. But there's one huge difference. When we taught students how to order food in a restaurant, how to give directions or how to describe what they did over the weekend, we ourselves already knew how to do it; we teachers were already comfortable with the cultural and practical elements of the exchange. In chat, we have to learn about the environment ourselves, before we can feel comfortable teaching it. It's a brave new world, but there's no turning back.


1. Many thought it would radically change the landscape; one blog (Tropophilia 2008b) called it "the first step in a slow revolution in social networking as we know it" (though that writer changed his mind with respect to its importance - see Tropophilia 2008a).

2. See McCarthy (2009).

3. For example, they get on it regularly, but don't even know about the chat function. It's an interesting social phenomenon that, though FB is entirely social, people who use it are invariably alone when doing it, thus develop their own strategies for managing the site and relating to its functions; I'm not sure anyone has actually researched this phenomenon, though.

4. Arrington (2008) wrote about the possibilities involved when everyone has mobile, everyone has Facebook, or a similar universal chat client, and everyone is aware of, and uses the chat functions in social settings. But, as my wife pointed out, what if everyone just talked to each other? They could, but they won't.

5. Much has been written about the technical glitches of Facebook chat, but by the time I found it, it seemed to run smoothly almost every time.

6. People are primarily utilitarian, even in their social functions, and will use whatever is easiest for any given function. In spite of their resistance to chat (see Chat resistance, coming), human interaction is a long story of trying and moving into new media (remember the telephone?), with various effects, which are rarely thought out carefully by the majority of users. But the overall effect is the same: if everyone does it, any particular person would be a fool not to. The attraction of the majority to a place is itself a powerful attraction to the rest. I suspect that Facebook, shooting past the line that could be called "most," will barely slow down until it reaches "almost everyone."

7. For example, one night I happened to meet my son and my sister, both by chance, and we went together over to online boggle and played several games as a team. This struck me as similar to when I was growing up; we had some free time; we went to a place where people were likely to be; we met people we liked, and went somewhere with them, preferably somewhere fun that didn't cost too much money. The only difference is that the fact that my sister now lives five or six states over doesn't stop us anymore. And, we didn't actually use our feet or our bicycles to get where we were going. Other things were very much the same; in the course of talking, for example, I found out what was going on in each one's life. We had conversations. One other difference: in the chat, when I was talking to one, the other didn't see it.

8. In this section I may appear to be making suggestions to Facebook about what it could or should change. In fact I have no idea what the implications of such changes would be for Facebook or anyone else; I can only speculate, whereas Facebook could at least do market research, and does. But, to review, Facebook could make multi-user chats possible; it could allow users to hide other actions that they do while chatting; it could give users multiple profiles and multiple faces, allowing them to put on a tie, so to speak, for certain interactions; it could make transcript recovery possible, easier or optional for all exchanges; and finally, it could do better in making every user more aware of the possible ways of using or managing his/her Facebook experience. After all, not knowing about a powerful or interesting tool is in its result exactly the same as not having it.

9. I forgot to mention it: chat is associated with all this bad stuff, and more. Read Marcus (2009) for the kinds of attitudes one might encounter when discussing this issue. Marcus, however, is at least not bored about it, or unaware of what it is.

10. As an example here I'll use my wife, who has a fair amount of chat resistance, but who was led recently into a chat by a bank associate who needed to discuss business with her. Noticing that it was free, easy, effective, and immediate did wonders to break down her resistance. If the bank thought she would now associate that bank with the seedier elements often associated with chat, clearly they felt that using the medium was worth it on that occasion. She was, after all, already a customer.

11. Actually I say this without intending bitterness, sarcasm, or irony. I can see huge changes that Facebook has brought upon our social beings, yet in their totality I don't necessarily see them as clearly good or bad yet. But good and bad are irrelevant, when the operating word is inevitable...

Arrington, M. (2008, Apr. 9). I saw the future of social networking the other day. TechCrunch. networking-the-other-day/. Accessed 1-09.

Leverett, T. (2008a, April). brb: Using chat in an esl/efl writing class. From Teaching writing in online and paper worlds, Demonstration, Writing IS, TESOL 2008, New York City.

___ (2008b, April). Digital fluency as goal and objective. From Teaching writing in online and paper worlds, Demonstration, Writing IS, TESOL 2008, New York City.

___ (2008c, April). Always in MyFace: Social networking becomes a necessity. From Teaching writing in online and paper worlds, Demonstration, Writing IS, TESOL 2008, New York City.

___ (2007a, Mar.). Fluency first: Fluency as a construct. From Student weblogging for fluency, skills and integration, Demonstration, Writing IS, TESOL 2007, Seattle WA.

___ (2007b, May). Dialects in a changing language. Global Study Magazine 4, 3. London. pp. 56-57. Available online at:

Marcus, M. (2009, Jan. 5). Social networks are intrusive. Martinsville (IN) Reporter-Times. Accessed 1-09.

McCarthy, C. (2009, Jan. 7). Zuckerberg: New year, 150 million Facebook users. CNET News.;posts. Accessed 1-09.

Perez, S. (2008, Apr. 6). Facebook launches chat. ReadWriteWeb. Accessed 1-09.

Smith, J. (2008, Apr. 6). Facebook chat launches - Tour & first impressions. Inside Facebook. first-impressions/. Accessed 1-06.

Tropophilia. (2008a, July 1). Mea culpa: Facebook chat is, in fact, useless. useless/. Accessed 1-09.

Tropophilia. (2008b, April 15). Facebook chat: Social networking comes home. home/. Accessed 1-09.

Wiseman, M. (2008, Apr. 6). Facebook chat: Now we're talking. Facebook blog. Accessed 1-09.

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