Coffee shops, pubs and social media spaces: considering the similarities of group chat in social places

A recent post in the Intelligencer titled Group Chats Are Making the Internet Fun Again shared by my colleague Scott Turner has sparked a flurry of conversation on Twitter this Sunday morning. What started as a conversation about the article on group chat, went off on a variety of different tangents. I’ll come back to that another day, as what I wanted to share here was my initial reflections after reading this post and the connections I made to pubs and coffee shops.

The post talks about the author’s choice to take conversations with those he chooses to engage with online, away from social media to group chats (namely Apple iChat). He reminisces about the”the halcyon era of AOL Instant Messenger, once the most widespread method of messing around with your friends on the internet”.

In many of the popular social media spaces, there is the facility to have threaded conversations. This is where someone shares something or raises a question, and then one or more people reply. Further replies are connected so that you can follow the ongoing conversation. In addition readers of any post can simply interact with a like. One of the (many) critisisms of Facebook is that the complex algorthims and ‘multi-metric ranking system’ has meant that we don’t get to see all of the posts made by people we are connected to. Posts do not appear in your feed in a chronological order.

One definition of group chats is “a group of people who regularly exchange messages on the Internet, especially people who share an interest.” The group chat provides an opportunity to limit the conversation to a specific group and access is just for those individuals. Posting on Twitter (unless you have protected Tweets) is open to all to see. On Facebook anyone you have chosen to friend has the potential to see the group conversations. That said both spaces do also offer private group chat. In Twitter you can give a group private direct message a title, useful when you have a specific themed chat. Facebook also offer groups (which can be private or open), which can be named as you wish. LinkedIn too offers the affordances to create open or closed groups. Then there is WhatsApp, Snapchat, Slack and paid tools like Microsoft teams and Yammer.

There are of course pros and cons to any form of group chat. The subject can be focussed but can also go off on tangents. Any chat is open to different opinions, but you have the choice to leave the conversation should you choose to. The number of messages can accumulate if you don’t keep up, but then again you don’t miss out if you can take the time to scroll back. Conversations can be synchronous (in real time) or asynchronus (respond at a later time). Larks and nightowls (those up early or late) can post when they want to and members of the the group chat can choose when to respond. Turning off notifications during the time period you want to sleep is a good idea!

With all this considered it got me thinking about the way we communicate as humans and where we choose to have these conversations in physical social spaces such as coffee shops and pubs. These places can be very popular, and yet like online spaces, they can also fall out of favour. Aside from selling good quality beverages, people often visit these places for the social aspect. Let’s face it, it’s much cheaper to make your own coffee or buy your drink from the supermarket. People enjoy both talking and listening (in) to others, and socialialising is very popular in pubs and coffee shops (along with many other places!).

In these public social spaces conversations can take place:

  • as private conversations in pairs or small groups (assuming you haven’t a loud voice that carries) with those you arrange to meet there
  • with those you may know and ‘bump into’ because that’s your local or
  • with those you have never met as you choose to strike up a conversation with them.

The popularity of the venue can be linked to where you feel most comfortable. A city centre bar may be the hub for many a conversation, but a quiet local pub may be preferable for a private conversation. A high street coffee shop chain can provide a convenient place to meet, but a small independent coffee houses might offer a more unique and cosy atmosphere. A quiz night in a pub or drinks after a football match will bring people together with a shared purpose and anticaption of shared interests and conversation.

I’d suggest that online social media spaces are similar. There are different ways we can choose to interact and an ever growing choice of places to do this online. Social media sites might seem to lose favour for some and if people choose to migrate their conversations to other social spaces of their choice than that’s great. If you wanted somewhere to go for a quiet conversaton over a drink, but choose to go to a busy place, then don’t be surprised if it’s loud and heaving with people. The key thing to remember is that where you choose to have conversations is just that – a choice and the right choice is something we all need to learn to judge for ourselves. As an educator I see value in encouraging my students to experience different social spaces and to have conversations about protocols and privacy.

With the rise of smart phones and free WiFi in public spaces like pubs and coffee shops, access to social media is easily available and you might think you can get the best of both worlds of face to face and online conversations. In the main this might be true, but online you have the option of when to engage in a conversation. However when someone starts a face to face conversation, (unless you make it clear you do not want to engage with them) it is important to be fully present. Be mindful of multicommunicating –  the practice of engaging in more than one conversation at a time. Just as it would seem rude to be part way through one conversation and start interacting with another person near to you; joining an online conversation via your phone whilst talking to someone you are with can also be considered rude if the other person feels they are being ignored.

Whether communicating face to face or online it is important to develop listening skills, interpersonal skils and understand the protocols which may vary depending on with who and where the conversation is taking place. I’d like to think people don’t frequently go out of their way to be deliberately rude, but sadly it does happen. It is (in my view) important that whenever we communicate (face to face or online) that we are courteous, aim to be clear,  and give consideration to others to ensure they have an equal opportunity to interact.

Image sources: Pixabay (public domain)




About Sue Beckingham

A National Teaching Fellow, Educational Developer and Principal Lecturer in Computing with a research interest in the use of social media in higher education.
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