Are you afraid of that little box at the bottom right side of your Facebook screen? You're probably not alone. That box is called Facebook Chat. Released in April, it offers Facebook members the option to see which of their friends are online, and then lets them instant message them. Seems like a great tool -- but many users aren't buying in yet.
This isn't the first time a popular Web tool launched a free instant messaging service and it didn't explode immediately. Google Talk (gChat), offered by Google Mail, is all the rage now, but when it first launched in February 2006, many Gmail users simply looked at the bar on the left side of the page and wondered what it was for several months. But gChat has succeeded quite well in the last two years, partly due to Gmail's popularity among a younger and more educated demographic, according to a 2007 Hitwise survey. Facebook follows in similar fashion, as a study last year argued that the Facebook brand attracts more teenagers and college students from middle to upper class backgrounds, versus its primary competitor, MySpace.
Another hindrance with gChat in its infancy and Facebook Chat now: is it an appropriate method of communication? It's unclear why a social stigma to using a new instant messaging client exists. It's as if there is some invisible line one crosses when sending a message for the first time. AOL Instant Messenger (AIM) had been the dominant instant messaging client in the United States up until then. (Exact member numbers on any IM service is fuzzy as all three clients allow users to sign up for multiple accounts and screen names under different aliases or e-mail addresses.)
A key technical difference, however, between gChat and AIM is gChat's auto addition of contacts based upon how much you contact one another. Additionally, AIM has gotten inundated with spam users over the years, which antagonized a lot of users who were frustrated with how many people they had to block. That could prove to either help or hurt Facebook. It's an excellent tool to get in touch with friends around the world one couldn't otherwise, but how many of your Facebook friends are you actually still in contact with?
Another tech qualm many users have about Facebook chat is that they simply don't like keeping the program open all day. I don't either. The alternative is using an IM aggregator. Who still wants to keep a bunch of extra windows open these days when you can condense them all to one? Ever since I bought my MacBook, I've synced my AIM and gChat accounts on Adium (among several other programs Adium allows including MySpace Chat). Earlier this summer, I finally added a Skype plug-in, and Adium developers are working on adding Facebook Chat to the mix. Mac users can download a beta version here, but I'll warn you that there are still plenty of bugs. Windows and Linux users with Pidgin can try this plug-in, and IM aggregator Trillian offers support here. Inversely, if you're a Meebo user, you can install an application to your Facebook profile page and access all of your IM accounts there.
With time, Facebook Chat will probably take off as gChat did, granted Facebook's popularity is only growing by the day. But when it will become the social norm is still unclear.