This impulse to share is what Google is trying to leverage through Hangouts, but with a corporate-friendly spin. “We’ve been working hard to streamline the classic Hangouts product for enterprise users,” reads the blog post announcing Gchat's demise. Another post on a different Google blog goes further, highlighting the company’s efforts to “[double] down on our enterprise focus for Hangouts and our commitment to building communication tools focused on the way teams work.” Clearly, people using Gmail for work, not just during work, are increasingly critical as Google competes with Microsoft and Slack for corporate users.
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After Google announced the future of its messaging tools, I could only think about the past. When Google Reader vanished, the accompanying data disappeared forever, so I worried that the formal end of Gchat might mean the loss of those conversations. I searched Gmail’s help section for steps to download an archive of my chats, which number in the thousands, but there’s no easy way to do so. My pulse quickened at the thought of losing all those transcripts I hadn’t read in years, but that I might someday want to read again.
Like the one in which I coached my younger sister, who now has a masters degree and just bought a house with her fiancée, on her college application essay. “I suck at the ‘how did you first learn of Smith College’ question,” she’d lamented. “I was lurking colleges in Princeton Review … and I saw that Smith had ‘dorms like palaces’?”
Or the wistful ones from a friend in the throes of new motherhood, including one in which she contemplated a long car drive with her infant. “What’s the worst that can happen? She cries for three hours? That just sounds like…yesterday.”
Even ones that make me cringe, like one in which a guy who knew I pined for him told me “Serious Talk is a Poor Idea right now” because he was drunk on cheap wine and watching Predator 2 on a Saturday afternoon. “I mean,” he’d typed, “this movie has Bill Paxton in it.”
As with most 21st-century dilemmas requiring an immediate solution, I consulted—what else?—Google search. I discovered a step-by-step method to export all archived chats that looked legit. I followed the instructions and a file started downloading to my desktop with the extension .mbox, something the Mail application could read.
Once complete, I scrolled through the new Mail folder, relieved to see my fleeting correspondence from the previous decade. But as I looked closer, it became clear that the file had only imported the last line of each one of the thousands of chat threads in my Gmail history. Most of them were simple salutations or responses to something unknown—ttyl, haha, brb, lol, you too—stripped of all context through this technological hiccup. But some friends had a habit of never formally ending Gchat conversations, so scrolling through some lines revealed more about what we’d been discussing when one of us had signed off.
al qaeda clearly has the wrong target
did you bring the hobo gloves?
not really wastednot really wasted
plus i have to find some meat to eat
she wants help with her Ikea bookshelf
but I’m Mom Terrible, which is much better than regular terrible
life is continually amusing
Fortunately, my paranoia was unwarranted. Google’s communications team assured me the company will archive all on-the-record chats, even those predating Hangouts. I’m relieved I can still peek at that time in my life to see how much has changed in a decade, but it’s unsettling to realize that ultimately, it’s not up to me. To keep enjoying the perks of any communication platform, some control over the content must be ceded. Not a comfortable thought, this powerlessness, but technology unspools in one direction only, offering no way to rewind.