I recently went travelling to a wonderful and remote part of Indonesia called Ternate. As outsiders we were a relative novelty and over a week said yes to hundreds of selfie requests from the locals. I went to see if this hunger for connection was also the case online, especially as the Indonesians are known to be big Twitter users. With using the hashtag #ternate it was interesting to see the response rate. To my surprise there were quite a few responses on Instagram and none on Twitter. I also tried Wechat which lead to many more offers of connection. Wechat includes location identifying that I am in the area, without it being too specific to be scary or creepy. I am still in contact with some of those connections, while all the selfies have disappeared into the past (except for 1 Facebook request). Wechat and other online chat services like Line, Viber, Messenger and Snapchat, while sometimes for used dubious reasons, are spaces where many young people are turning, at the expense of Facebook and Twitter, a trend others are noticing.
The initial reason to hop into chat is circumventing text messaging. All you need to do is find wi-fi and you can text away to your heart’s content. But there are deeper advantages for young people. With anonymity they can try different personas and experiment with identity. In this regard text feels safer than other more revealing platforms. As well an enormous amount can be communicated, including nuanced emotion, with combinations of text and the accompanying emoticons and stickers. My own entry into the world of online engagement via text was back in 2005 was learning how to deliver online counselling. I was amazed at the level of subtlety and depth, that what seems like simple text, can evoke. The change since then is the move from chat rooms to mobile chat apps. It is like how MP3 has moved to streaming of music.
Recently we surveyed the tool usage of students in The School of Art. What we found surprising was as well as prominent use of Facebook and Instagram, the extent of use of Line, Viber, Messenger, Snapchat and Wechat, not just for socialising but also for professional peer communication. The other big surprise was the extensive use of Tumblr. The emerging prominence of chat has implications for how we design online experiences. Forums are no longer enough to satisfy an “engagement” requirement. As well, with the development of a chat function potential built into university websites, for the purpose of marketing, students have the expectation of a certain type of relating. Do they expect find chat and connectedness when they get to the LMS?
And if we were to bring in chat services to our platforms who is going to manage the responses? Teaching and learning support? IT helpdesk? The Library? Specific community managers?
But really this is the wrong question. As with a lot of online design, we are only offered platforms built primarily for administration. What if an online course was built around the principle that by beginning with how relating occurs amongst youth online, that we can design a better learning experience? We have to watch out for the Creepy Treehouse effect. I am not sure students want to receive photos of the lecturer on snapchat, however there are some who understand how the authenticity of the experience can be powerful for learning. The tools themselves create interesting potential contexts. Wechat has mastered the setting up of groups and transfer of funds through the groups, making it powerful for family connections in China. I am keen on trying an app called Tappestry which is built for education in that it can export analytics in the Experience API standard. Then there is also a push in some areas to use the collaboration tool Slack for education. Slack is already used by some of our digital design teams, so it has the potential for giving students industry relevance in a medium with which they feel comfortable.
How do you think you could use a chat app with students?