Apps and services that allow users to real-time chat are experiencing a kind of renaissance, with the likes of Banter, Rooms, and HipChat muscling in on email and text messaging. The da Vinci of this particular revival is Slack—the just-over-one-year-old service has already nabbed a $1.12 billion valuation and hooked more than 250,000 users. Its allure? A central chat room for employees to share messages, photos, and company updates.
The act of chatting online with strangers—that phenomenon that first found its footing in the ‘90s, with clunky design and dial-up access—is fashionable beyond the workplace. In October, Facebook launched Rooms, a way for users to anonymously swap photos and comments about shared interests. "In Rooms you can be ‘Wonder Woman’—or whatever name makes you feel most comfortable and proud," writes the Rooms development team in their inaugural blog post.
That anonymity—something Facebook has generally avoided—is part of the appeal, experts say.
In an environment where many social networks now encourage or mandate real names, the freedom to use a moniker is refreshing, according to Chris Hajek, a professor of communication at the University of Texas at San Antonio.
"[They] fulfill a need other sites or other forms of communication don’t," he says.
It’s a premise Ekho Powell, a 33-year-old public relations professional in Florida, agrees with. She’s toned down her Facebook use and migrated to anonymous apps like Banter, which allows users to chat with others nearby.
"Social media built great roads and connections to people’s lives," Powell said. "It united long-lost friends. But somewhere along the line, it broke down our carefully constructed boundaries."
To entice users like Powell, newer services have crafted their entire platforms around preserving these boundaries. And the in-beta service TagsChat hopes to be in the vanguard.
TagsChat allows users to build a spartan profile—nickname, one photo, location, and a handful of other details—and then add a series of "tags," or interests. Once logged in, users can live-chat with others who care about the same things.
There are the obvious pop culture selections (Dr. Who, Game of Thrones), but also a collection of far more tags too niche to sustain, say, a devoted subreddit: Marcel Proust, Belgian beers, and photographer Robert Mapplethorpe.
TagsChat was conceived in September of 2013, says Matteo Frana, the social network’s founder, to more easily connect people around passion points.
"Standard social networks can rarely offer an occasion to find new friends," Frana said. "I think that the old chat had an appeal that the new way of publishing has lost. Chat is more intimate than a ‘wall’ seen by hundreds of friends. We are social because we talk, not because we publish."
TagsChat’s private beta began in mid-November and opens to the public this month.
Seok Kang, an associate professor of digital communication and Hajek’s colleague at the University of Texas at San Antonio, says chatting is on the rise for reasons beyond anonymity and shared interests—like immediacy, mobility, and convenience. Today’s chat platforms distinguish themselves from their dial-up forebears by making sharing of photos, GIFs, and videos more nimble. But perhaps more important is that preconception that when using these services, delayed responses aren’t tolerated.
"When you use email, you have to first open, and then check [messages], and then reply," Kang said, labeling it a more formal mode of communication. "A chat app is quick and short, without too much concern."
Facebook’s investment in Rooms—and the creation of platforms like TagsChat—spotlights a trend with the keen ability to influence social media platforms big and small. And Stewart Butterfield, the CEO and cofounder of Slack, says this trend is a matter of course.
"It took many years to get this many people online and comfortable with online interaction," Butterfield said. "Now that everyone can do it, they want the best possible tools."