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Shalom Gauri

Gmail Chat was a much better Hangout

I remember the time I discovered Gmail’s new “Chat” feature. The small menu at the side of my inbox, with a list of friends I contacted most often. Occasionally, one of those people would become “green” and start a chat.

It was like meeting each other, only it happened online.

When we were done chatting — usually when one of our computer-times ran out — the conversations would be saved among the other emails, for us to revisit and look back on, if we wanted to. Sorted into a special ‘Chats’ folder, or searchable if we wanted to find something in particular.

But then, people started getting these “mobile devices”. Feature phones, smartphones, iPads. Hangouts, WeChat, WhatsApp. Now they were available any time and all the time. But strangely enough, this also meant they were available for no time at all.

Back in the 201st decade, everyone’s computer-time was limited, and we made the most of it. When we found each other online, it was a focused conversation. I would start a chat. They would reply. I would reply. And it would go on from the beginning right till the very end, until one or the other of us had to sign off.

Now, being always online, there’s not so much urgency, no need to reply fast before the time runs out. Nowadays, when I try to start a chat with someone, the reply is usually a long time coming. You will always be there, I will always be there — so what’s the rush?

Unfortunately, this also removes the immediacy of the conversation, and the intensity of the replies. There are more “Hi”s and “How are you”s than actual stuff to say, and by the time a reply comes, I’m usually distracted with something else. Even with out one-hour-every-other-day time limits and only-meeting-occasionally-by-chance, I think there was a lot more in those early chats than in any mobile messaging conversations today.

Google doesn’t help much, either. The new Hangouts interface has “chat markers” so you know how far in the conversation people have read. But you can’t easily find the answer to the crucial question: is that person currently online? Or, in this age where everybody is online, is that person ready to chat?

They wanted to make Hangouts into an eternal conversation, one that never has to end. Instead, it’s become like truncated emails for those too lazy to type a subject. (Not that emails are supposed to be like chats, of course. But with everyone typing them on their tiny screens, who can tell the difference?). Not only do conversation never end, they also never start.

And then, there’s the problem of multiple messaging services. Some of my friends are on one, and others on another, and I need to be signed on to all of them to keep in touch. Some time around 2009, these services were all experimenting with XMPP. That’s a messaging standard that works across servers the same way email does, so I could use Gmail and still chat with my friends on Yahoo and Facebook.

But now, mainstream messaging apps are becoming closed off. Hangouts is available all across Google, but nowhere else. Each service tries to hold on to its users, and force more to join in, and, in the end, it’s people like you and me who lose out. Even WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger, both run by the same company, have no way of interacting.

I never joined WhatsApp and WeChat, because I didn’t really see the point. Hangouts came because it grew naturally from Gmail Chat and Google Talk, and it’s conveniently there by the side of my inbox. But seeing how its usage has changed, I haven’t been using it that much, either.

So is it back to email, then? I wouldn’t say “back”, because I never left. But yes, I am using email. Everyone has it, for one, and they use it much the same way as messaging apps so there’s no need to use both. Besides, I have friends who write longer emails too, something you can’t do in chats. (Not effectively, anyway).

Meanwhile, I made an account on one of the many smaller services that still support XMPP. Small they may be, but since they all support cross-messaging that’s not going to be a problem. They have status indicators, with people “going green” when they come online; they have text messaging and media messaging, but, most importantly, they bring back the feel of the lost Gmail chat.

So, while email will be my primary way of keeping in touch, you can still join XMPP to start a chat when both of us “go green”. And then we can have a real conversation.