A chat client, in my experience, needs to do one thing besides facilitate a text exchange between two or more parties: It needs to inform you whether someone is or is not available to send and receive such messages. Gchat used to do that fairly well—in a small box of frequent contacts, it displayed which of your past chat partners were available (with a green dot), inactive (with a yellow dot), busy (with a red dot), or offline (with a gray dot). It was such a simple and obvious system, I never thought about what would happen if it went away, just as I haven’t seriously considered what would happen if all traffic lights were reconfigured to only display green or nothing at all, and to furthermore loosen their grasp on this very system so that green might mean go and no lights might mean something else, and all of it means you now need to pull out your phone to get the very useful information that was once readily available. KEEP YOUR EYES ON THE GODDAMN ROAD!
The extended metaphor reflects my experience with Google Hangouts, which after a slow rollout for a few months intended to acclimate Gchat users, officially replaced Gchat today. In the two or so months since I started using it, I have noticed that Google Hangouts simply does not let me know who’s around to chat in any meaningful way. Sure, there are little green lights next to people’s name in my contacts list, but they don’t seem to represent very much of consequence. Certainly, there have been times when I don’t see a green light and text someone to ask if he or she is available via Google Hangouts and I hear back, “Yes.” The annoyance of that information not being readily available aside, this means I am sending communication by text on one platform to inquire if I can do so on another (the reason I don’t just initiate a full-on text conversation is that texting doesn’t really facilitate longer, more involved, link-swapping exchanges in the way that online chatting does). Texting about texting is very...my mother of me. Why just last night, she called me after I sent her an emoji so that I could explain it to her (I couldn’t chat, I was getting on a boat).
I don’t need more reminders that I’m becoming my mother—crying in public, struggling to say no to annoying favors asked of me, and having an occasionally debilitating fixation on animals is already beaming the message to me loud and clear, thank you very much, DNA/universe. That’ll do, Google.
I hate to bother people about bothering people, so instead of sending a text message ahead of time to ask people if they’re online, I sometimes just bite the bullet and chat with someone as though I know they’re already online. If they are not, there is no alert that I’ve sent them messages when they finally are, which means we either just don’t talk about the thing I wanted to talk about, or if I follow-up, it creates yet another scenario in which I’m bothering someone about bothering them (this time, after the fact), and then at that point it’s probably already over or rendered obsolete by a mere sliver time and then I’m left to wonder why I bother reaching out at all. This does not need to get existential.
I’ve noticed that I miss plenty of my friends’ messages, too. I’ll see them after being off line when I reopen the window to hit someone up cold, taking a leap of faith in the hope that our existences align and that we might be able to exchange a few ideas simultaneously, like we used to before Google inflicted this scourge on us. Only rarely am I inspired to follow up on a message I missed. Given the breezy nature of the way I use this kind of chat, never is the message one of life or death, and for the minutiae that otherwise fills my life, relevance is fleeting. The concept of time polishing away importance is widely understood, but much more manageable when intended communication doesn’t pan out and its target is left none the wiser for having missed the transmission. What Google Hangouts facilitates are these echoes of attempted and failed communication that require extra time to consider, or if I do decide to respond to, extra time to circle back and pick things up where they were left.
What I experience in a variety of ways, thanks to Hangouts, is an absence of efficiency that could be fostered with the old, rigid system that keeps track of your contacts’ availability. I see no solution on my end, other than a restructuring of my communication habits like migrating everything to Slack, but I’m already on Slack and I don’t need more of it? I don’t need Gchat, either, I guess, or much else that factors into my daily routine, but that’s neither here nor there, and I suppose I should thank Google for its rather confusing system that has at the very least given me material about communicating (and communicating about communicating) to communicate here, in yet another window. So that’s something.