This article originally appeared in Total Retail.
Mobile chat apps have completely taken over the app ecosystem. WhatsApp reports that it delivers 55 billion messages every day. The top five apps in the world in terms of frequency of use are all messaging apps. We’re more addicted to messaging than to Facebook or Instagram.
How did we get here, and what does this mean about our online behavior? Here’s how messaging apps came to be and why they’re here to stay.
The Birth of Chat
The first online chat system actually dates back to 1973, at the University of Illinois. Somewhat similar to today’s Slack, it offered numerous channels, each of which could hold up to five people. Unlike today’s messaging systems, each letter would appear on all users’ screens, character-by-character, as the person typed. The system proved highly popular.
Chat didn’t hit the mainstream until the 1990s, most notably with AOL’s AIM. Remembered for its delightful opening and closing door sounds (used to represent chat “buddies” coming online and offline), AIM had 53 million users by 2005. In 1998, Yahoo! Messenger quickly followed and added custom status messages to its offerings.
In 2008, Facebook released Facebook Chat, which allowed users to instant message (IM) one or multiple friends, and in 2011 Apple released its popular iMessage, which was then replaced with OS X Mountain Lion’s “Messages.”
There were several key components to each and every one of these popular messaging services: the ability to talk individually and in groups; “indicators” of whether a friend is present; chat language, such as BRB and LOL; emojis; and the ability to control friend lists. Each of these aspects of chat remains constant today. In fact, not only are chat-specific attributes present, but they’ve even infiltrated pop culture to the point that there’s a $50 million movie about personified emojis.
Why Chat Continues to Dominate Today
In 2015, JPMorgan Chase offered to eliminate voicemail for employees who didn’t interact directly with clients. About 65 percent of employees accepted the offer, resulting in over $3 million in annual savings for the company. Executives told media that the decision was due in large part to younger employees’ increasing preference for type-based mediums, including email and instant messaging. Coca-Cola, Bank of America and Citigroup offered similar deals, with employees reacting in much the same way. People just like messaging better.
In an on-demand world, messaging is appealing because it cuts out much of the awkwardness and small talk associated with interpersonal interactions. You can get straight to the point and have a history of what has been written.
Perhaps even more appealing, though, is the ability to have disjointed conversations. You can text your significant other about dinner while sitting at your desk, emailing your boss, and watching the new Taylor Swift video. Mobile chat apps also enable users to stay connected to work and home from wherever they are — be it a mini office hidden from your co-workers’ views, a coffee shop, or your bed.
Why Mobile Chat Apps Will Take Over the Business World
Mobile chat apps are particularly appealing for businesses, as they save massive amounts of money and time. From the internal, like Slack, to the external, like Helpshift, businesses are investing in mobile chat as a time-saving measure both for employee-employee and employee-customer interactions.
The ability to have disjointed conversations allows employees to accomplish more things on their own schedules. For instance, a customer service agent could see a Slack message, decide to wait to respond for five minutes while they finish up the two simultaneous chat conversations they’re having with customers, and then answer their co-worker’s question. The rhythm of chat allows for ebbs and flows in attention, which enables multitasking.
Push notifications have further enabled this level of asynchronous communication, allowing users to disengage from a conversation momentarily, but then it pulls them back in. This facilitates greater mobility and an increased capacity to multitask.
Currently, users are fully on board with chat as their primary form of communication. Businesses have been slower to adopt it, but if the precedent of consumer behavior over the past 20 years has shown us anything, it’s that once mobile chat fully takes off, it will be here to stay.
Looking Into the Crystal Ball: Why Conversations Will Drive Future Digital Communication
Since the time of punch cards and green screens, humans have steadily moved from graphical interfaces to interacting with computers as they interact with humans. With the advent of touch and voice communication, machine-to-person (M2P) contact has begun to mirror peer-to-peer (P2P) contact. Based on this trend, we can expect that as P2P moves more and more towards chat, M2P will also have conversational interactions as the pervasive communication paradigm.
The proliferation of chatbots in platforms like Facebook Messenger and Telegram is an early sign of this trend. As the accuracy of natural language processing in AI improves, these chatbots will become even more powerful, able to respond to us as other humans do. In fact, second-generation voice interfaces like Amazon Echo and Google Home are well on their way to doing just that. As language processing improves, we'll see M2P and P2P communication move ever closer to each other.
From chatbots to voice interfaces, the future is conversational. Businesses need to tap into the potential that mobile chat conversation offers and create compelling M2P experiences that drive value for their customers.