Hyperlinking in online chat service interaction: pro or con?

Today, service organizations offer their clients a range of communication modes, including text-based chat. This includes insurance companies, transportation organizations, (mental) health organizations, libraries, the police etc. Survey research has revealed that customers/clients appreciate chat (perceived anonymity, no costs, etc.), but relatively little is known about how chatting with clients differs from other communication channels. The question is if and how the nature of the communication between professional and lay person is affected by the medium. This is one of the questions that drive me as a researcher. I work in the tradition of conversation analysis, examining both spoken and mediated interaction in institutional settings. A useful concept for the analysis of mediated interaction is the concept of “affordances”. Affordances are enablements and constraints of technologies participants use for their actions and activities. One of the “affordances” of chat as a communication channel is the functionality of hyperlinking. In my earlier research on online

A useful concept for the analysis of mediated interaction is the concept of “affordances”. Affordances are enablements and constraints of technologies participants use for their actions and activities. One of the “affordances” of chat as a communication channel is the functionality of hyperlinking. In my earlier research on online counseling it struck me how important linking seems to be for counseling. It appeared that no studies had yet explored the ways in which hyperlinks are used in chat interactions and how they affects the service interaction. Trena Paulus and David Atkins, also active in the research network for the microanalysis of online data (MOOD), told me that hyperlinking was also very common in their data collection of library chats. Therefore, we decided to examine this phenomenon together. We analyzed the use of hyperlinks by professionals in two types of chat services – chat sessions from the Dutch national alcohol and drugs information service and chats from an American university library chat service. We found that providing links can influence the service encounter in various ways. A link may initiate the ending of the chat when it represents an acceptable response to the client’s question. It may also invite the client to re-focus when

Trena Paulus and David Atkins, also active in the research network for the microanalysis of online data (MOOD), told me that hyperlinking was also very common in their data collection of library chats. Therefore, we decided to examine this phenomenon together. We analyzed the use of hyperlinks by professionals in two types of chat services – chat sessions from the Dutch national alcohol and drugs information service and chats from an American university library chat service. We found that providing links can influence the service encounter in various ways. A link may initiate the ending of the chat when it represents an acceptable response to the client’s question. It may also invite the client to re-focus when the he/she isn’t actively participating, or it may mediate the information negotiation ad hoc, sometimes including collaborative navigation outside of the chat. This implies that hyperlinking predominantly facilitates online service provision. However, we found that it may also jeopardize the flow of the interaction when the link is navigated to immediately and the client disengages from the chat. This leaves the professional to decide to wait for the client to return or log out. Hence, the affordance of linking has mainly pro’s and few con’s for online service encounters.

Wyke Stommel

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