Google Hangouts and the Future of Chat

A few weeks ago, Google announced their new, unified chat system, integrating what had become a mess of different chat systems under different names and having varying levels of interoperability with each other. Google Talk in GMail, Google+ Hangouts, and Google Voice, although all very well-designed and well-thought-out, provide duplicate functionality, making them inefficient and redundant. It was only a matter of time before Google would have come out with its single, unified solution.

The current version of the new Hangouts, although still fairly new and with limited adoption, is meant to eventually replace Talk, the old Google+ Hangouts, and SMS (Google Voice). But while it enhances interoperability between them and represent a step toward a single, unified chat experience, it has been met with sometimes bitter resistance from users who do not appreciate the loss of certain functionality when compared to the older systems. I personally was a sceptic; the decreased XMPP support, lack of an easily-accessible contacts list to see who’s online, and the elimination of statuses were too much of a change for me to accept; perhaps, the lack of these features that I considered essential was simply an oversight on account of Google, who would eventually release an update for a more polished version of Hangouts addressing these issues in the future. But I soon came to realise that Google probably isn’t seeking to return to the old status quo, these were design choices, and Google’s vision for the future of chat was in part embodies in these controversial feature omissions.

Taking into account the very human desire for certain things to not change, it becomes important to see my natural reaction to the new Hangouts not as a justified anger but simply as a closed-minded rejection of the prospect of learning something new. Maybe Google does have a good reason to do what it did with the new design, and I am simply disregarding the bright and better future because of some ineffectual nitpicky concerns. So I decided to give Hangouts a fair trial, to try to think like Google and make an unbiased and comprehensive judgement on how the new Hangouts will change the way we interact with each other for better or for worse.

The new Hangouts is much more than an incremental update to an insignificant part of our lives. Staying connected with each other through online social platforms has become a very important part of social relationships in the modern age, and such a significant change to the system whereby we do so will impact the way people keep in touch. Change, while usually shocking at first, is not always bad, and it just takes time to realise its true merits in light of what it holds for the future instead of what it breaks in the present.

The latest Google Hangouts update is the next step in Google’s final objective of having one single platform with which we can stay connected with each other whether we are on a desktop, laptop, tablet, or smartphone. It seeks to be a device-independent, platform-independent service that Google hopes will eventually replace the likes of Google Talk, Google Voice, iMessages, AIM, Windows Messenger, Skype, ooVoo, and countless other services by offering the same functionality but better integrated.

This goal is reflected in Google’s design choices. There are mobile apps for both Android and its competitor iOS for mobile users as well as web interfaces on Google+ and GMail for desktop/laptop users that work consistently across a variety of operating systems and browsers. By remaining as device- and platform-independent as possible, Hangouts seeks to remove any limitations on where you can use it, providing the same functionality everywhere.

To further distance Hangouts from the context of devices, Hangouts removes the ability to see what device the person you’re talking to is on. An experimental feature in GMail’s chat provided this ability, as did custom statuses. The choice to not provide the same functionality on the new Hangouts is evidence of a paradigm shift in the very nature of chatting online. The new design encourages chats to be ongoing conversations between friends that people can quickly and easily drop in and out of. Such a paradigm takes the focus away from the context of the people in the chat — what device you’re using, what situation you are currently in in real life, etc. — and encourages users to focus on the context of the chats themselves, which are the core of the conversation.

This idea is also hinted at in other parts of the app. The new contact list is no longer a list of who’s online; it has become a log of your most recent conversations. This further removes Hangouts from context, emphasising that users can send and receive messages anytime, whether online or not, and it will be part of an ongoing conversation. In fact, Hangouts strongly deemphasises the online presence indicator even where it does still appear. Instead of a prominent green, yellow, red, or grey circle indicating a person’s availability, a thin green bar appears under the person’s avatar (in the contacts list) or the person’s name (in an open chat) when they are online. There are no away, busy, or invisible indicators. Only a binary presence indicator distinguishes Hangouts from completely stateless platforms such as SMS in this regard.

Ordering contacts by the most recent conversations also has another effect on one’s behaviour: your close friends will predictably and intuitively rise to the top, and those you don’t talk to as much will go down. Combined with the nerfed presence indicators, this discourages people who get bored easily from running down their contact lists looking for someone random to talk to. By encouraging the user to know who they want to talk to instead of just randomly scrolling down a list of available people, more genuine interest is established between friends.

In retrospect, availability indicators were rarely effectively utilised by anybody I know, anyway. The majority of people tended to remain “Available” whether they actually were so or not. Another group opted to always be “Busy” in all circumstances. Some would switch between the two states sparingly, but only a few power users would ever actually indicate whether they were available or busy using the presence indicator. To make matters worse, the “Busy” status became the “Away” or “Idle” status when the user was inactive, so unless the busy person constantly opened the chat window, people wouldn’t even be able to tell they were busy in the first place. All in all, usage patterns of normal users rendered the presence indicator all but useless. Users did not find the presence indicator important enough to constantly update based on their availability; therefore, it became worthless in many cases. The new Hangouts removes this vestigial remnant of the previous generation of chat platforms.

One indicator, however, will surely be missed by some: the “Invisible” status. Usually used when avoiding someone or when needing to talk exclusively to a single person without distractions from other people who may want to chat, invisibility is a valuable tool for people who sometimes simply don’t want to be bothered. While I am not a fan of avoiding people (partly because I am all too familiar with the feeling of being avoided), there are people who will miss being able to see people online without being seen. The lack of invisibility in Hangouts forces users to be more transparent with people in their contact list; the only alternative ways to avoid someone on Hangouts are either to deal with it and ignore chats as they are sent or block the person.

A new feature in the new Hangouts also further encourages transparency: the “seen” indicator, first introduced into the messaging world by Blackberry Messenger, followed by Facebook in 2012. This feature has raised the concerns of many in the past on other platforms: some regard it as an invasion of privacy because they do not wish to be seen. It could be used to detect if one is being avoided, for example, or ignored, which is never pleasant to admit, and misinterpretation of or obsession with the indicator could cause certain types of people to become paranoid. Obviously, this is not something that users would want. However, the “seen” indicator can be used for good in the hands of a mature user. It can supplement the less customisable presence indicator, which no longer shows if a person has been idle. Google also claims that the indicator will result in “more engaging conversations.” For group chats, it may be particularly useful to know if somebody isn’t caught up with the latest new messages. But even if used effectively, this indicator still has its shortcomings. For one, you have to be talking to someone who is using the new Hangouts for the indicator to work; the update is at the time of this writing optional for the GMail web interface, so many users have not yet updated. Additionally, it can be unreliable, as the exact behaviour of the “seen” indicator is not very well documented and cannot always be assumed to correlate with whether a person has actually seen a message or not. And then, there’s the issue of how people will react to seeing the “seen” indicator. In order for people not to freak out whenever somebody has seen a message but not replied to it, they must understand that sometimes it is more convenient to reply at a later time even after a message is read. And then, they also have to accept that sometimes people just don’t want to talk. This demands a level of patience and understanding that cannot be asked of everyone, especially younger and more insecure teenagers. One small trick, though, can help if you don’t trust people with knowing that you’ve seen their message: by simply closing the chat window with unread messages without clicking in the input box at the bottom of the window, no seen indicator will be sent.

Aside form the quirks of the new Hangouts, there are also many exciting new features as well. The ability to send photos directly in chats, call up to ten people on video chat (although this has been around for a while already), group chat with up to one hundred (!!!) people at once, and live stream to a global audience will be greatly appreciated, and, I think, not very controversial. These new features are what Hangouts has to offer to us in a world wherein internet is becoming ever faster, more reliable, and more ubiquitous. Even though many of the changes introduced in the big update still need polishing, Hangouts is already becoming a new, unified chat system that bridges the gap between devices and encourages users to have more genuine and engaging conversations. Hangouts wants to keep people connected no matter where they are, what device they’re using, and what’s going on around them, and to offer a rich and full experience through audio/video calls and various apps available in Hangouts such as Google Drive and Sporcle. It encourages ongoing conversations that are not restricted by time or space, where people can drop in or out without disrupting the flow of the discussion and messages can be sent and received regardless of whether a person is online or not. It is a unique, rich, and powerful experience, and I believe that, despite its flaws, it will become a very important part of the lives of people connected to the Internet looking for meaningful online interactions.

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