Does the internet feel more professional nowadays? One-off blogs have given way to Medium, brands have become extremely digital-savvy, and regular people are feeling increased pressure to scrub social media profiles of objectionable content. It’s no surprise, then, that web users are craving more informal, less public spaces where they can be authentic with one another. The result? The return of chat.
You can see it in the memes. At the time of this writing, this meme is taking over Twitter. (By the time this is posted, 300 more memes will have exploded and died off. Such is the internet.) The question: “Without giving a number, how old are you?” A fair number of respondents cite their grade-school use of AOL instant messenger—or AIM, colloquially—as a way to signify their status as twenty-something Millennials. But chat rooms, and chat features more generally, may not be relics of the past. In fact, all signs point to chat making a comeback.
This isn’t just a theory based on a few Twitter replies. As of a year ago, Messaging apps like Whatsapp and Facebook messenger collective boasted over five *billion* active monthly users. Which is to say, the majority of people on Earth are using some kind of chat or messaging tool to communicate with one another.
Sure, okay, people use messenger apps. That doesn’t necessarily mean that chat rooms—a tool popularized during the internet’s infancy through Bulletin Boards and AOL that had largely died off by the start of the first Obama administration—are making a comeback, right? Wrong! So, so wrong.
Besides Facebook Messenger’s 1.2 billion users and Twitter’s group DM feature being heralded as “the new chat rooms,” one of the internet’s other largest social networks has recently relented to user demands and entered the chat game. Get ready for the rollout of chat groups on Reddit.
Reddit is essentially a collection of countless message boards, or subreddits, itself a throwback to a platform most widely used online during the 90’s and early 00’s. But message boards lack the immediacy of a group chat, and redditors wanted a way to communicate more easily with other users who were online, on the same particular subreddit, at the same time.
Now subreddits can host multiple chats for more “off-the-cuff” conversations than a message board post might generate. “Reddit’s chat feature hopes to reintroduce some of that early web spirit,” says the report from WIRED. True, though the chat rooms also serve to keep users on the platform, rather than moving offline to chat services like Slack, Discord, or competitor Facebook, to message one another in real time.
The internet began as a space for nerds and misfits to connect in a fun and informal way, so it’s no surprise that we’re straining against the limits of “professionalized” social media. But we haven’t seen a full-on return of old school internet just yet — platforms like Facebook are beginning to introduce ads in messenger, so we’ll see if users stay on chat, or forge new spaces where they can connect. Who knows—maybe this is AIM’s chance to make a comeback.