Chat Issues

What many people tend to overlook in their rush to create chat rooms using Flash is that, despite the fact that chats are conducted in real time, chat is not instant messaging.

In many respects, instant messaging is a freeform medium. Any number of people can talk to you, simultaneously, about any number of subjects. As long as you are online, instant messaging either finds you, or you find the people on your Buddy List. You can also add video and audio to your instant messaging these days.

Chat is more structured and focused than instant messaging. Chats are topic-based conversations whose medium is print, not voice. Chats are read. They are not spoken. Though many would claim they are a rather sterile medium, participate in a chat and you quickly pick up the personalities of the participants.

When planning a chat room, there are more issues than design to consider. For example, if the chat facility is available to the public, will it be accessible to individuals with disabilities? This is an important consideration because governments are now mandating, in no uncertain terms, that web sites must be accessible to the disabled. If accessibility is a huge issue, the Flash component used in this example?the chat component?does not meet accessibility guidelines. In this case, an HTML solution is recommended. Macromedia is currently addressing this issue.

If it is a "private" room, there are other issues to consider, including restricting access to the room and using passwords.

From a design point of view, there are other issues to be addressed. For example, if someone doesn't have the Flash 7 Player, how can he or she get it? Will the interface be done in Flash, or will the Flash presentation be embedded in a Dreamweaver page? What point size will be used for the text? Will the design be modular so that video and audio capabilities can be added at a later date, if needed?

As you can see, chat rooms are not "cool." Chat rooms are practical. As we have been stressing throughout this book, they require careful planning that starts with the question, "Do we really need a chat room?" and is completed with construction of the chat room and upload.

How Many Users Will be Involved?

The question is valid. Though we exist in a world with "plentiful bandwidth," which is able to accommodate hundreds of people in a single chat room, this simply isn't workable. Imagine the largest sports arena in your area filled with people. Now imagine each of the thousands of people talking to himself or herself. Now imagine that image confined to a chat room. There would be tens of thousands of simultaneous posts. The implications don't need to be demonstrated.

The best chats involve fewer than 30 people. Educational institutions that "get new media" and see it as a viable instructional delivery medium, not a line item on a budget, are running chats for classes where the instructor delivers the lesson, and the students pepper the instructor with questions. These classes are usually tightly controlled.

Some companies use chat rooms with their sales forces. In this situation, a salesman on the road using a wireless hand held device can "talk" through a problem, one-on-one and in real time, with his or her sales manager or customer service team member.

Keep in mind that the effectiveness of chat decreases with the number of people involved. If you go above 30, seriously consider the use of an email list or "threaded" discussion forum. With those kinds of numbers, you will have upset participants who will be denied the opportunity to interact with the other participants. In that instance, the value of real-time interactivity, which is the promise of chat, becomes negligible.

How Will It Be Moderated?

We have learned from bitter experience that leading a chat is comparable to "herding cats." If one person goes off topic, the "herd" will follow, and bringing a chat back on topic is quite similar to turning an aircraft carrier around to reverse course. It takes a lot of time.

The key role for anyone moderating a chat is to keep the group on topic. This actually becomes easier as the participants become familiar with chat. We have found that running an informal session a day or two before the actual get-together tends to stop people from going off topic and "hijacking" the chat when it is time to "get serious."

Here are some moderating tips:

Remind the participants that, due to the nature of chat, going off topic will result in a negative experience for some. Do this in an email to the participants.

  • Send an agenda and stick to it.

  • When the moderator is about to "speak," use a little technique we have learned: send a one-line note that says, "Hands off the key board."

  • If you hit the end of the text input area and have more to say, end the post with "…more."

  • When you have finished and it is time for the group to participate, let them know. We usually end that post with, "OK, jump in."

  • Let the participants post their views and questions. Then stop them and deal with each one. In this case, make it clear to the group it is one-on-one time.

What Control Mechanisms Will Be Built In?

There are a number of things you can do to make the chat experience a positive one. You can:

  • Send an email invitation that clearly states that, to participate, the recipient must respond by a certain date.

  • Use the responses to assign a password to each invitee. This controls who participates. The implication is that entry to the chat room is controlled by a database consulted either by Dreamweaver through a form or using the Flash Remoting features of Flash and the Flash Communications Server.

  • The moderator should have a separate area on the screen to talk privately with the participants. For example, assume Jordan sparks off a Mac versus PC discussion that is way off topic. The moderator can send him a private note telling him that he is off topic and that he should get back to the subject of the discussion. This avoids embarrassing him in public.

  • Consider providing a transcript of the chat to the participants when the session is finished. It can be done using server-side shared objects from the Flash Communications Server, but the mechanics of providing this service are beyond the scope of this book. In a classroom situation, this feature has proven to be invaluable to the students and instructors.