Realtime Text /1/ Why Did it Disappear?

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!

3 Responses to “Realtime Text /1/ Why Did it Disappear?”

  1. Dragan Says:

    Have you tried pictochat on the classic Nintendo DS? It is built into the ROM.

    Some people also prefer Google Spreadsheets for chatting because it is very expressive :)

  2. FTC Says:

    Text telephones for deaf were (are?) basically a simple keyboard+screen, and a modem connection. …and then pure direct bi-directional ASCII communication, sharing the same text area/screen. (You could call a BBS with those “telephones”). So, if you started to write something when someone else was writing, you would interrupt/disturb them. Much like simultaneous talk in spoken communication.

    So.. I think the splitting of space into separate output for each speaker is also part of the process of indirection in text communication. I think AOL and those programs that actually do allow you to see the other person while they are writing still fail in this other respect (shared area for writing).

  3. Mark Rejhon Says:


    I’m Mark Rejhion, the author of XEP-0301 at and working to help make real-time text popular again. It’s the extension that makes real-time text work on Google Talk compatible networks.

    — Gallaudet University has a web-based Google Talk demo client with RTT at which you can use to try out real-time text as well. It works on iPad and Android too!

    — I also have a program called RealJabber that enables real-time text when using XMPP servers (including Google Talk), at

    Mark Rejhon

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: