chat on the web
family history

Web-chat and information: a field study using CoBrow

The aim was to evaluate the uses of synchronous chat on Web-sites in relation to their information-providing functions. As a case study, for several days in September 1999, the CoBrow chat program was installed on a mirror of a university prospectus Web-site. This allowed visitors to seek advice from a representative of the university whiIe expIoring the site. The conversational and information-seeking behaviour of visitors was observed and a questionnaire was administered. Fewer than 7% of the visitors to the parent site accessed the mirror site. Most visitors may have been looking for opportunities to chat with other visitors rather than a representative of the university. Those visitors who asked questions of the representative were primarily interested in seeking clarification and interpretation of published information in relation to their personal circumstances. Chat could clarify misunderstandings; but text messages were time-consuming and lacked conversational cues. There was not enough evidence from which to draw conclusions about attitudes to information-seeking, the effects of cultural or gender differences, or the effect of chat on perceptions of the site and the university. Some technical problems in CoBrow were identified.

In a general survey, 599 Web-sites were identified as having offered chat facilities; only 35% still did so. Between 45,000 and 95,000 people were estimated to be using chat on Web-sites at any one time, as against 164,000 to 246,000 using Internet Relay Chat, and 4.8 million users of the Web in any one hour. Most sites made little attempt to define uses of chat, or to control access or behaviour in using chat. Conversations were analysed on a sample of sites, using the same categories as in the case study. Scheduled conversations included more substantive items of information and a lower proportion of social messages than casual conversations; but the distinction between "social" and "information" messages depends on the purposes of the site. The categories used to analyse these conversations helped develop a checklist of questions that may clarify the information needs that chat on a Web-site may serve.

(Patrick Wallace: MSc Information Science, City University, 1999)


Last updated 23 March 2008