Someone who wanted to know how we live might ask how we talk. Madame de Rambouillet talked in bed, stretched out on a mattress, draped in furs, while her visitors remained standing. Blue velvet lined the walls of the room, which became known as “the French Parnassus”: a model for the 17th- and 18th-century salons, where aristocratic women led male philosophes in polite and lively discussion.
Talking, of course, is nothing new. But conversation, in the 17th century, was a novel ideal of speech: not utilitarian instructions or religious catechism, but an exchange of ideas, a free play of wit. Thus the hostesses of the Enlightenment received visitors in a new kind of furniture. In 1667, the Gobelins tapestry-weaving workshop became Louis XIV’s official furniture supplier. Previously, fabric—like Madame de Rambouillet’s velvet—had been confined to walls and clothing. The Gobelins were the first to apply it to chairs, which for many long, uncomfortable centuries had been small and hard. Now they were wide and soft—more like beds. The fauteuil confessional, for instance, had wraparound wings against which the listener might rest her cheek, as the priest had done behind his screen. Listening and talking became even easier in the 1680s, with the introduction of the sofa. Seating for two! For the first time in history, people could sit comfortably together indoors for long stretches—thereby making it easier for them to speak comfortably together for long stretches. Thus was conversation enshrined—en-couched—as a vehicle of Enlightenment, fundamental to the self-improvement of civilization.
Face-to-face exchanges continued in the exchange of letters. As the salon had the sofa, “written conversation”—as one style manual called it—had the desk, another invention of the 17th century. For men, there was the bureau—a big, heavy table for conducting official correspondence. (From bureau comes “bureaucracy.”) For women, there was the secrétaire. Unlike the flat bureau, the light, portable secrétaire featured stacks of shelves and cubbyholes, which were kept locked. Some writing surfaces slid outward, like drawers. Others opened from the top, as if the desk were a jewelry box—or a laptop.
If talking is one thing, and conversation another, then what is chat?
In the early days of the internet, chatting was something that happened between strangers. “Wanna cyber?” millions of people asked, and millions answered: Yes! On AOL—as of 1994, the most popular internet service provider in the US—half the member-created chat rooms were for sex. AOL also launched the first mass IM interface, which was where the real action happened. Each conversation appeared as a flat, white square on your screen—it was like having sex on a tiled floor. But at least it was someone else’s floor. Signing off was like walking out of a public bathroom. Nobody knew where anybody went: answers to “a/s/l?” were likely lies, screen names universally inscrutable. Because AOL permitted five screen names per account, it was possible to use one for strangers, another for friends. Before the introduction of the Buddy List—in 1996, dubbed the “stalker feature” by AOL employees—you could come and go without any of them noticing.
Eventually, AOL’s dominance waned as people signed up for free web-based email and downloaded desktop-based chat clients, like AOL’s own Instant Messenger (1997). In AIM, all that remained of the original AOL was the AOL Buddy List, which hung in the corner of our screen. (Chat rooms were still out there, but mostly for terrorists and pedophiles.) Chatting now required constant tabbing between applications: browser for email, IM window, browser for search. Like hermit crabs outgrowing their shells, people kept shucking their old screen names for new ones.
Gmail changed all this. We signed up using our real name. So did our friends, and one day those names appeared in a column on the left side of our inbox. This was Gchat, and whenever we signed in, up came the gray, ghostly list of Gchattable names. And what names! Previously, we’d decided which screen names to include on our “Buddy Lists” (poor AOL: it came first and had to name the animals, and it named them in a corporate-Midwestern way that couldn’t help but become comically creepy). Gmail made the choices for us, pulling names from our email contacts. It was like standing outside the door of a party that all your friends had been invited to. Maybe they had already arrived!
Gmail began “in beta” and by invitation only in 2004 and remained technically in beta for the next five years; it continued to feel exclusive long after everyone was using it. (Registration opened to the public in 2007.) Being new, it was also youthful: you could tell when a person signed up for email by the client they used—AOL between 1994 and 1999; Hotmail or Yahoo! between 1999 and 2004; after 2004, only Gmail. When Gmail automatically added Gchat to every user’s inbox in 2006, it was like a conspiracy of the young against the old. We would chat while they thought we were working; they would grow old and die; we would inherit the earth and chat forever.
So what do we chat about? Not sex. Our real name is right there, and anyway the mood is all wrong. AOL was a series of semi-private suites; Gmail is an open loft, wallpapered with distractions. PROTEST HYDRO-FRACKING! says one email. Another is from our grandmother (email@example.com): she misses us. Hard to picture anything less erotic than the inbox, that cluttered room whose door can never be locked. Imagine having sex and someone from the alumni association bursts in to ask for a donation. Everywhere the professional intrudes: a former coworker signs in; a friend’s status message links to his latest article (Congrats, dude!). And as the virtual setting is all wrong for eros, so too is the actual one, because most of our Gchats happen at the office. We chat all day as we work, several windows open at once—windows into all the offices in all the cities where our friends spend their days Gchatting. Or we chat with coworkers, carrying on an endless conversation that sounds, to the half-aware ears of our superiors, like the soft tip-tapping clatter of real industry.
Our banalities are more shameful than any fantasy or confession. Gmail saves the histories of our chats, should we ever care to look. It turns out we use the internet to talk about what other people are talking about on the internet: “Oh god please look at what she just tweeted.” “Hang on I’ll find the link.” And then there are the tactical chats—“I guess I am not that in the mood for Thai food?”—that would be harmless enough on their own. Mixed in with the rest, and preserved for all eternity, they assemble further evidence of our gross mortal wastefulness. Time is misspent twice: we talk about life as thoughtlessly as we live it. And the server farms know this.
In contrast to chat rooms, where we talked to many people in public, in Gchat we talk to many people in private and simultaneously. (We could gather our friends together—Group Chat has been around since 2007—but mostly we don’t.) “As long as one is in society,” said 18th-century salon hostess Suzanne Necker, “one must occupy oneself with others, never keeping silent out of laziness or from distraction.” But distraction is endemic to daytime Gchatting, especially at work. The medium creates the illusion of intimacy—of giving and receiving undivided attention—when in fact our attention is quite literally divided, apportioned among up to six small boxes at a time. The boxes contain staccato, telegraphic exchanges, with which we are partially and intermittently engaged. Together the many chats divert us from work, speeding up time—yet look closely and you see time break down and stop. The clusters of text are followed by time-stamps, which Google inserts whenever the conversation lags. For David Hume, increased conversation between men and women corresponded to “an increase of humanity, from the very habit of conversing together.” But Hume didn’t know about Gchat, which offers us so many opportunities for conversation that conversation becomes impossible. We are distracted from chatting by chatting itself.
Eventually, we apologize for dropping the ball, invoking a more pressing technology: “Sorry, on the phone.” But now it is our friend who doesn’t respond! Is he really gone, or has the sneak downloaded that add-on that allows users to appear idle when they’re chatting? Like a shield, the round orange icon affords protection—to the person behind it, who is permitted to ignore any unwanted chat, and to the sender of the unwanted chat, who can tell herself, I guess he’s not there. The way we chat now—using plug-ins or hidden behind Gchat’s own Invisibility feature—suggests that what we really want is a way out of chat. Consider chat’s entry in the OED, which includes what must be the most melancholy example sentence in the history of example sentences: “I keep getting messages popping up on my screen from people wanting to chat.” What anguish, when the definition of chat implies the desire not to chat! We, too, keep getting messages from people wanting to chat. And we keep being those people, too.
One good thing about work Gchats: they can’t be videochats. The videochat is too eye-catching, too attention-getting—although the attention it gets would be other people’s, not ours. For even when we maximize the video—when our friend’s face swims into view, as large as our own, eclipsing our MacBook’s starry default desktop—it still seems small and insignificant. Videochat—introduced to Gchat in 2008, and before that one of the major selling points of the popular chat client Skype—is a medium that, except for the way it allows you to display cats and babies to distant friends, is every bit as alienating as technophobes predicted. The built-in camera tends to cast everyone in the same gray pallor. Revealed to us in videochat, our friends are all nostril and no heart. Our interlocutor looks lonely, bored. Tired. We feel the same. Every relationship is reduced by videochat to two
properties: 1) the inability to touch and 2) the lack of desire to.
There is something so literal about video. It reminds you of a world that can’t imagine anything but itself. It’s almost as bad as walking down the street. Our friends are made over into evasive strangers: just try making eye contact in videochat. You can’t.1 It’s as bad as a first date, or a job interview—you sit there, face to face with another human being, and feel unseen. Videochat’s promise of intimacy—friends on the other side of the world, looking at us in our homes!—makes us forget the conditions in which actual intimacy occurs. Where have we had our best conversations? When we were sharing a booth with someone in the back of a dark bar, or lying in bed, or walking somewhere, or nowhere at all, our faces turned in the same direction: outward, toward the world, into which we moved forward together. We arrive at a shared perspective when we do, actually, share a perspective—when we take, quite literally, the same view of things. Then, turning away from that view—and toward each other—can mark a moment of surpassing agreement or sympathy. There are no such moments in videochat.
No, there’s nothing erotic about videochat, despite what the experts keep telling us. According to a study commissioned by the hotel chain Travelodge, in twenty years we will be having “virtual sex” with whoever is waiting for us back home. In the old days, the traveler might have seized the opportunity to sleep with someone else; or, more adventurously still, deployed the noble and fading, video-menaced art of phone sex. In the motels of the future, a guest will simply conjure her partner via Travelodge’s “active skin electronics,” which will be to sex what Gchat is to work: a way of making the dull endurable, a way to forget the fear that, stuck in the wrong office or the wrong relationship, we are wasting our lives.
It’s already in our Gmail calendar: no Travelodge after 2030.
There is hope, but not for videochat. All we really need, to know love, is a plain old wireless connection and somewhere to lie down: 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? In addition to being comfortable, our beds are private; on Gchat, we must be by ourselves to best be with others. Night affords another degree of solitude: like the lights in the apartment building across the street, Gchat’s bright bulbs go out, one by one, until a single circle glows hopefully. Like Gatsby’s green light, it is the promise of happiness.
For if, as Necker wrote, “the secret of conversation is continual attention,” the enduring romance and appeal of Gchat can perhaps be explained by the way certain nighttime Gchats so effortlessly hold and reward our attention. Gchat returns philosophy to the bedroom as, late at night, we find ourselves in a state of rapturous focus. Which perhaps is why so many of us feel our best selves in Gchat. Silent, we are unable to talk over our friends, and so we become better and deeper listeners, as well as better speakers—or writers. (To be articulate—but not alone! To be with another person—but not inarticulate! When else does this happen?) We have time to express ourselves precisely, without breaking the rhythm. It’s like the description of letter-writing in Françoise de Graffigny’s 1747 novel Lettres d’une Péruvienne: “I feel myself being brought back to life by this tender occupation. Restored to myself, I feel as if I am beginning to live again.” Chat’s immediacy emphasizes response, reminding us that we do not simply create and express ourselves in writing, but create and express our relationships. Gmail—simultaneously salon sofa and locked secrétaire—stores the proof forever.
And who do we Gchat with, when it counts? Friends, past boyfriends, future boyfriends, other people’s boyfriends. But rarely our actual boyfriend, who’s next to us in bed, looking for something to watch on Hulu. (Unless he’s out of town, in which case we chat with him, and are reminded why we fell for him in the first place.) Gchat is for friendship, and affairs. It’s for allowing into the home everyone who isn’t supposed to be there, who’s supposed to be at home in their own bedroom. It offers a temporary escape from the prison of the family—a reversal of what Engels called “the great historical defeat of women”—and patriarchy, which depends on monogamy and its enforcement. When we sign into Gchat, we do not enter utopia, but sometimes we catch a glimpse of it. We initiate a conversation and, some nights later, resume it. Meanwhile we initiate another. These exchanges are not exactly casual, but they’re not unique either. In Gchat, as in life, we are happiest when paying attention—when we belong completely to a conversation that continues. Might this be a model of commitment: truly felt on both sides, mutually desired, without exclusivity? These conversations don’t occur at the exact same time—if we wanted threesomes, we’d be in Group Chat—but the long view is the one to be taken here, and the beginning of one chat does not mean the end of another.
At the very least, Gchat holds out the promise of “free commerce between the sexes” (Hume), which will surely be a feature of any utopia worth the name. Listen to people on first dates, old married couples, or anyone in transit between infatuation and resignation: mostly you hear the following of a tedious script. People say the things they always say, that they’re supposed to say, that other people say. And we say these things, too! Yet Gchat has at times liberated us from this dialogue of the deaf, and provided us with a template for another way of talking. If, as Madame de Staël (Necker’s daughter and the most famous salon hostess of all) put it, “the spoken word . . . is an instrument that is enjoyable to play,” then chat—these broken lines, these misspelled words, this transliterated laughter, this long, unpunctuated scroll—has tempted us to compare it, at times, to the musical language that is poetry. But what it is, of course, is conversation. And that is compliment enough.