Parallel conversations on IM

Tags: chat.
By lucb1e on 2011-11-19 20:48:55 +0100

I often find myself talking about two subjects at the same time with the same contact on MSN, which can lead to confusing situations. 'Did the "no" apply to subject #1 or #2?'
Often you want to say something about a new subject without interrupting the current conversation about the current subject. Or, also often enough, you don't know if the other person wants to say more on the first subject while you want to move on.

Together with a good friend of mine (Frédéric) I tried to solve this by adding some sort of label or tag to the start of a secondary conversation. For example person A has been online for a while, and has been waiting for B. When B gets online, A starts a conversation to tell him (her? it?!). Person B though got online to see if A was there and ask him something. The result is a double conversation, which could be managed like so:
A: Hey
B: Hey
A: Guess what I did today :D
B: 2] Do you know how subqueries work in SQL?
B: No idea?
A: 2] Yeah, hold on I'll lookup some page where I read about it
B: 3] Oh and you should check this out: http://[::1]/
A: 2] it was explained very good there
A: I passed my drivers exam!
B: Nice!
B: 2] ok, thanks
A: 3] No place like ::1 huh :+)
B: 3] haha yeah
B: How did the exam go?
A: 2] Found it, http://subqueries.tld/

Not sure how silly this conversation seemed, but I think it demonstrates the use of tags allright. The only thing is that you now read both sides for the first time, normally you would be either A or B so you would only have to read the responses. The above conversation might seem more confusing to you now as when you would be either A or B.

I'm not saying it's completely natural when you are either A or B in the above example, but if you are less than 24 hours awake you should be able to keep up easily ;)
Frédéric and I have used it for a few months now I think, peaking at three or four parallel conversations (generally we only have one or two though), and it generally works quite well.

One thing I couldn't really work into the example is 'tag-shift' (I made up that word on the spot lol). Suppose there would be a conversation about subqueries while the topic about the exam has finished, and it's clear nothing will be said about it again soon (or nothing has been said about it for a while). You can then shift the tag 2] to 1]. As 1] is never mentioned for ease of use, this means you remove the tag for the second subject. You can do it like so:
The conversation about subqueries, which was labeled 2] before, is now not labeled anymore. Messages will appear like this:
B: So the result will be parsed to each row in PHP?

Or if you, for example, want to move conversation 3] to 2], you could do the following:
Then a message about which was previously the 3rd subject would appear like this:
A: 2] Some_Message.

To sum up, the Parallel Conversations Technique:
- Topics are identified at the start of a chat message by a number followed by a square closing bracket, like so: "2] message";
- "2]->1" means that the first topic is replaced by second topic. The first topic will be overwritten, not moved to 2]. If you want to say something about the original first topic, you can start about it again in 2] though;
- If no topic is given, it defaults to the first, or "1]". Also when moving 2]->1, the 1] won't be included at the start of a message. The 1 must be written for clarity though, saying "2]->" is sort of weird, like you hit enter too quickly.

I thought this blogpost would be about 5 lines long... The goal of this blogpost was mostly to be able to link people here and avoid having to explain it multiple times. Guess I'll make a summary.

While typing the last line of this post, I needed this system already lol. Someone got online, I wanted to tell him something and he wanted to tell me something, but unfortunately Frédéric is the only person knowing the system. This wasn't the moment to explain it though (as we both had something else to say, and 2 parallel conversations without this system is confusing enough lol).
Another post tagged 'chat': Parallel conversations on IM - summary

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