When we chat to each other, we don’t do it in real-time. Until we press return, the person on the other end can’t see what we’re doing. But it wasn’t always like that. Before the internet took over the world, you could actually see how the other person was typing. It is like a digital equivalent to body language; involuntary, unescapable, direct and intimate. All this was destroyed, as the return key gradually went from carriage return (↵) to enter.
Initially, the most mainstream example of real-time text I could think of was real-time captions for TV. It’s a service offered to deaf people in public service areas like UK and Scandinavia. It’s produced word-by-word (“chords“) and its mere existence adds a new dimension to TV-watching: you know when a program is following a script and when it’s not. There are many more real-time text services, often involving so called disabled people. Actually, there is even a Real-Time Text Taskforce (R3TF).
But wait a minute. Why did I forget about collaborative text editors like Etherpad or Google Docs? I use those very often. Great for having two people editing the same text. But they are also boring, I guess. I use them primarily for facts, lists, research, etc. Only a few times did I use them for something more playful or emotional. It’s like having fun in Microsoft Word. It just doesn’t happen, unless as an anomaly. Consider the difference to a less officey site like Your World of Text.
It’s not that it’s not possible to use real-time text. In fact, popular chats like Google Talk and iChat support it, but don’t implement it. AOL IM implements it but you have to activate it yourself.
Chat is a clear example of how new media makes things more indirect, by adding layers to the interface. Even if you believe that digital media only gets better, you’d have to admit that chat is an exception to that. Right? Chat is actually slower and less expressive than it was in the 90’s. Or even the 70’s with PLATO. Chat has derailed into some sort of primitive enter-beast, where you can’t even draw or use images.
Computer-mediated human-to-human communication is quite primitive, isn’t it? It’s like 1968 only with more layers to make it indirect and abstract. Layers of secrecy, as good ol’ Kittler would say.
In the next part, I will post a conversation I had with the BBS-artist Erik Nilsson. That was actually the reason why this post was written, so stay tuned!