Friend: are you busy after 8 tonight?

How often do you Gchat?


Me: I can’t do it today
I’m like doing some stuff
And by that I mean reading and sleeping

Friend: HAHAHAH it’ll just take like 45 min I can meet you in fishbowl even
we need to get this taken care of

Me: Sleep is a thing humans have to do once every four days
I’m due for my sleep

Let’s talk about how we talk.

Or, rather, how we “chat” here at the University, an environment where things are easily pushed to the periphery — class melds with work which melds with the party you attended last weekend in a series of conversational tidbits.

How do you gather the pieces, strike a balance? Maybe it’s right there, in the same place you go while procrastinating on that paper, surfing the web in lecture or killing time at work: Gchat.

Constantly plugged in

You sign in to Gmail to check an e-mail from a professor. All of a sudden, your friend sends you a message:

Friend: I MISS YOU!

Just like that, you’ve inserted yourself into the Angell Hall of the Internet, the green dot next to your name in the lower left corner of your Gchat page signaling your availability to speak. You’ve opened yourself up to conversation.

sorry i couldn’t go to detroit this weekend
i heard you saw emily

Friend: no worries!
come another time!!
yeah she came saturday

Me: i want to see you!

Friend: Back at ya!!

At times, it feels like half our lives are spent sending e-mails for classes, for jobs or for internships. Gchat prolongs that correspondence into an endless stream of conversation, supplying the potential to talk to whomever, whenever, about whatever.

Most of the conversations are unremarkable — throwaway. They’re about what you want to eat for dinner and why you still haven’t started that Anthro paper.

But Gchatting also provides the arena for intimacy, a place where one’s deepest revelations of love and loss are exposed in the comfort of one’s own home.

“You can Gchat in bed,” Elizabeth Gumport, a senior editor of the literary magazine n+1, said.

Friend: Hey how was your date last week?

Me: Um it was okay

Friend: Just okay?

Me: The conversation was kind of one sided.
Not a lot of chemistry
But who knows really?
It’s probably too early to tell

Gchat fosters new relationships and sustains existing ones. University alum Jeffrey Domsic did not talk to his long-distance girlfriend from Denver on the phone. He chatted with her instead. For the three years he was in Ann Arbor up until his graduation from the University last year, the burden of never seeing her was eased by Google Chat.

“Without social media, I don’t think (the relationship) would have worked,” Domsic said. “Without being able to stay in touch as much as social media allows us to, it wouldn’t work. We don’t have the personalities to be able to handle it.”

The “salon”

In her article “Chathexis,” which was published in n+1 last August, Gumport likens Gchat to a 21st century French salon – traditionally comfortable, informal gatherings of intellectuals during the Enlightenment.

“The best Gchat conversations take place, like those of the salon, with one or both participants in repose, stretched out on a couch or in bed. Tucked beneath our covers, laptops propped on our knees — is this not the posture most conducive to meaningful Gchatting?” Gumport writes in the article.

In an interview, Gumport described Gchat as a means to bring people together online in a way that’s reminiscent of more personal relationships.

On Gchat, the conversations are one-on-one. They are leisurely. No one wears a title, just a name. The participants are on an equal playing field.

“There’s this sense of equality and possibility to me that seems kind of unique,” Gumport said.

And late at night, Gchat returns philosophy to the bedroom — the pallid glow of the laptop screen becoming romantic and mysterious.

“Which perhaps is why so many of us feel our best selves in Gchat,” Gumport writes. “Silent, we are unable to talk over our friends, and so we become better and deeper listeners, as well as better speakers — or writers … We have time to express ourselves precisely, without breaking the rhythm.”

Hoarding the past

We can return to these conversations, the evidence of the day you were craving Thai food archived in a neat tab on your browser.

Gumport’s second idea is the theory of Gchat as a secretaire, a locked 17th century writing desk used by women to store letters. The secretaires served as private repositories of correspondence, proof that the dialogues between individuals existed. But in order to access these conversations, the secretaire requires a password, a secret key.

Gchat operates in much the same way – the passwords acting as key grooves inserted into a lock; a quick search of your conversation partner’s name retrieving entire dialogues from your inbox. In a sense, we are hoarders of the ephemeral.

But what happens when the data exceeds the storage capacity, when we can no longer return to those conversations with friends we’ve come to rely upon? What happens when Google employs the first major use of the delete key?

As School of Information Prof. Paul Conway says, you can only hold onto the past for so long. Sooner or later, something must give.

Citing a study carried out by the market intelligence firm International Data Corporation, “The Diverse and Exploding Digital Universe,” Conway explained that the model of “saving everything forever” is unsustainable.

2007, the year the study was performed, was the first year in recorded history where the total amount of digital information exceeded the digital storage capacity, according to the study. And almost half of the digital universe was projected to be incapable of being adequately stored by 2011. In a follow-up study done in 2011, IDC reported that the world would create 1.8 zettabytes of information.

The study also says the amount of personal data that gets stored, like the kind generated on PCs and MacBooks, “exceeded all expectations in 2007.” In essence, consumers are just beginning to understand the need to preserve information when it may already be too late.

Conway believes this phenomenon will soon affect users of social media such as Gchat and Facebook.

“We’ve passed the point at which digital information that’s created exceeds the ability to store it,” he said. “We’re getting to a point where a decision has to be made about what gets stored and what doesn’t. And then the question becomes ‘Well, who makes that decision? And under what circumstances?’ ”

In a manner similar to the practice of accessing old banking records, in the next few years you may be required to put in a request to access old photos and online conversations. This means childhood memories won’t necessarily be stashed underneath your bed at home, Conway said. They may very well be locked away in a database.

“You write your mother for fifth grade, but you write Mark Zuckerberg for 2004,” he said. “He’s got it. It’s over there in a folder. He’ll send it to you if you want to see your (Facebook) posts from college.

“You’ll get them. But you’re going to have to ask. And worse, you’re going to have to pay.”

The external self

But is this necessarily a bad thing? When faced with the choice between keeping every Gchat conversation and wall post in your whole life or having it vanish into thin air, the latter might actually be a relief.

When asked whether she’d miss her data if it were suddenly inaccessible to her, LSA freshman Paige Wittmann’s response was ambivalent.

“I’d probably be a little bit upset,” she said. “Like when Timeline came out (on Facebook), I looked back and found things that were funny and that were important and seemed like the end of the world or the greatest thing ever. But when you look back, they’re not really relevant now at all. So, yeah, I’d probably be a little bit upset, but it’s not gonna be detrimental.”

Perhaps there are benefits that come with shedding the data we call conversations and letters. Gchat can rapidly become oppressive, and freeing oneself from the digital clutter may not just be relaxing, it may be necessary.

Gumport discussed the downside that comes with a culture of chat. In her own words, “there’s a sort of claustrophobia to it,” as the lines separating one facet of our lives from another slowly dissipate. A study session in the library is soon indistinguishable from chatter on your living room sofa.

“It’s like working from home, almost,” she said. “It’s like your entire life is lived in one place, and there’s no escape from it.”

She added, “It’s kind of like being under house arrest. What could happen outside of Gchat? Kind of nothing, right? Because all your friends are there, your work is there, there’s nothing outside. And that’s sort of the sour side of it.”

Maybe the trick to Gchat lies in remembering how to disconnect, if only momentarily. That is, if we can.

Me: ok i am going to sign off now
it was very nice talking to you

Friend: why
don’t go

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