Chat has more than a teen dimension

9 Nov

November 9, 2006

By Geoff Meeker

My last column, about free phone service over the Internet, prompted one reader to remind me that Internet chat is also a great way to do business.

Yes, the Internet Relay Chat (IRC) application is best known as a social connector for friends and relatives, and is immensely popular with teenagers. My 14-year-old has actually taken to pronouncing chat abbreviations such as lol (laughing out loud) and rofl (rolling on the floor laughing) as words, dropping them into normal conversation.

(As an aside, I think this chat phenomenon among teenagers is good and bad; bad because their chat terminology is corrupting the language, but good because they nonetheless are communicating more than ever in writing.)

Of course, chat is used by people of all ages, and is often the connecting thread between people in this province and their many friends and relatives who have migrated elsewhere.

For those who haven’t used it, the application allows you to chat – through keystrokes – live and in real time, with a person (or people) on the other end.  You open an account with a user name and password. Then you add people to your contact list, which means your friends and relatives need the same program (it’s a simple matter of asking in an email if they use a chat program). When your contacts are online, they are usually highlighted in your contact list. Then it’s a simple matter of clicking their contact name, which opens a little window where you start your chat.

Many people also use a webcam, which allows the contact on the other end to see what you are doing (at your invitation or permission).  The image is small and the quality is not great, but webcams are nice when you have two connected simultaneously, enabling both parties to make eye contact. There are online games you can play – everything from bridge to poker – which are enhanced when you can see the other player and chat simultaneously.

The social value of online chat is well documented, but not as many people are aware of its business applications. In my work as a consultant, I have dealt with a number of technology company managers with offices all over North America, and many have sworn by the utility of online chat as a way to manage meetings.

My first reaction was, ‘That sounds kind of bush league’ but their reasons were rock solid.

First of all, online chat is free, since most companies are equipped with broadband Internet access anyway.  This is obviously more cost-effective than a conference call with six or seven telephones dialed in at long distance rates, several times a week.

Secondly, chat keeps the meeting disciplined, focused and on track. People are less inclined to go off on tangents when they have to write their responses in a little window. Some people even write their reports in advance, in short, clear sentences that they can copy and paste into the window at the right time. Others can respond in their turn, and consensus can be reached in an orderly way.

Finally, the most valuable feature is the text itself. When the conference chat is finished, you can copy the entire text and paste it into a document, which becomes the minutes of the meeting. No one has to record handwritten minutes, everyone is sent a concise record of what was said, and there are no errors or omissions.

One final note: if you are a diehard chatter, with friends who use a variety of chat programs, you will want to know about Trillian. It allows you to use several chat programs at once – including MSN, Yahoo, ICQ and AOL – through one interface, which is a breakthrough for those people who have several programs running continuously. You can download it for free at www.ceruleanstudios.com.

Happy chatting!

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