One thing I’m interested in is how small, seemingly inconsequential, differences can become amplified into large or interesting effects.
An area that’s been fun to see this happen, and more than ever in 2020/2021, is on the cozyweb with text-based messaging. Here’s a breakdown of the different chat software I’ve used and what I’ve noticed about how they affect the conversations that happen on them.
I realize all my complaints are about software I don’t pay a dime for so… ¯\_(?)_/¯
The key differentiators with Slack are its ease of creating channels, separate conversations around specific topics. Slack also has lots of integrations with other software that makes sharing media easy.
- The most evident effect on conversation in Slack for me personally is that since I use it at work all day, I have almost no desire to use it for friend groups after work. Slack feels distinctly like “work.”
- The 10k message limit Slack imposes on free users is very annoying for large groups. Frequently I’ll visit a less-used channel (say #books) and find that everything we previously discussed is now lost forever because someone else had a friendly argument in #tv. Dumb.
- It’s not all bad with Slack though–the UI is basic but clean and it’s quite intuitive. It’s very easy to start small, ephemeral conversations. Sharing images and videos is nice, until you run out of space, at which point it’s very annoying. In that sense, Slack encourages a large variety of in-depth conversation.
Hangouts doesn’t allow you to edit messages, shows up in Gmail alongside your email, and doesn’t do much more. No channels, no media related features.
- Side conversations are unintuitive so most of the conversation stays in a single thread. This leads to the feeling that staying on-topic is more of a necessity and it tends to limit participants’ willingness to banter or chat idly. Depending on what you’re going for, this can be good and bad.
- Since messages can’t be edited, there’s a some friction around sending messages quickly. Messages tend to be longer and more thought through because of this.
- The UI is, in my opinion, awful. It almost seems like Google made a specific effort to make Hangouts break every common software pattern. Resizing the chat window horizontally is impossible, search is almost non-existent. Having multiple conversations open becomes unwieldy very quickly. Everything about Hangouts feels ugly and outdated. There’s no native Mac app. The combined effects of all these anti-patterns on actual conversations are difficult to quantify, but my guess is that they lead to more drive-by conversations rather than (ironically) actual Hangouts.
Discord is specifically geared for the cozyweb, and more specifically for gamers, but in my experience, it works great for just about any type of group. It has all the features of Slack, plus it makes it easy to stream video, join impromptu video chats, and it doesn’t hide your old messages.
For me, Discord has been the standout winner. Switching between groups and individual chats is easy. Creating impromptu groups and channels is easy.
- Introducing a friend from one group to a friend from another is easy since, unlike Slack, you only have one user account on Discord which can be a member of many groups. On Slack to join a new group you basically have to have a new account. One on one cross-group chats in Discord are easy whereas in Slack they’re not impossible, but it’s not easy.
- Discord’s ability to stream video is awesome. It’s super easy to share your screen, what you’re watching, the game you’re playing etc. This ease of use promotes all kinds of conversations and hangouts that don’t happen on any other platform.
- I think Discord is the best of the group at encouraging a wide ranging conversation about almost any topic. I’m having a hard time finding anything I don’t like about it.
Only available to Apple users and a first class citizen on iPhone.
- Android users are definitely not welcome. This is… disconcerting in a sense. It’s weird to make someone a second class texting citizen because of their phone operating system choice, but I guess not totally unexpected in the age of cyborgs.
- Messages conversations are usually phone based since most people either don’t use Macs or don’t have Messages configured properly. Because of this, messages are usually shorter and more surface level. Jokes and gifs abound. Lots of talk about TV. Gossip. Etc. There’s not a lot of philosophizing or deep thinking going on in Messages.
- The ease of use and integration with iOS makes Messages a popular “default” chat app. I think it’s a great place to form new chat groups, but that once friendships start to solidify, it’s better to move to Discord.
Other chat software
There are a bunch of other options that I’ve used, but less-so, so I can’t comment on them as much. Signal, Telegram, Keybase, Instagram / Facebook Messenger, etc. Just like the ones listed above, these will all have effects on the actual quality of the conversations that take place.
The takeaway is that you should choose software that will encourage the type of conversation you’re looking for. Seemingly small differences in features or user interface have huge effects on use.