The Michaels chat was always too pure for this world, and that’s what made it perfect.
Michaels, the craft store known by most as the place you can get 50% off frames on Sundays, had up until recently an online help chat, standard operating procedure for most internet retailers. But rather than establishing an AI or bot who could help guide customer questions, Michaels instead brilliantly left that task up to other customers. You log on, find yourself in need of help, and rather than let a bot answer your question, you post it into a very limiting chat queue where other users who are also on michaels.com can converse with you and (hopefully) answer your question.
This chat, as you could probably guess, was not policed in any way. Like a relic of ‘90s chat rooms, it featured a poor UI/UX design, a particularly slow interface, and a refreshingly straightforward lack of personal customization. In a world of usernames, avatars, bios, and predetermined messaging, the Michaels chat was built out of a simple desire to ask and answer questions—Formspring but with immediate purpose, Reddit AMAs but for the common shopper, and all centered around household crafting. Born out of a place inherently too ideologically innocent for the year 2020, when the service went viral I couldn’t help but marvel at its sheer existence.
The logic adds up… particularly in a place like Michaels, customer interactions are meaningful, and genuine insight can be gleaned by asking the person next to you in the paint aisle or sticker section about the best available options. Like Home Depot, Lowe’s, or Joannes (where I spent a summer working), every customer is there with a personal history of projects big and small, and thus become just as qualified to answer creative problem solving questions as most employees around them. Why not build a chat system around that?
Maybe the Michaels chat did fundamentally work. It’s hard to say. Social media didn’t yield many pre-Michaels chat revelations, of course, but it certainly revealed a lot of post-Michaels chat revelations—needless to say, anytime Barstool is reporting on a craft store’s customer service chat, things have gone awry. And the internet did what it is wont to do, and flooded the service to push it towards dark Online extremes.
It’d be easy to chalk up the Michaels chat as being another viral phonenomena that quickly fell prey to the internet’s keen, often humorous, childish sensibilities (remember Boaty McBoatface?), but that was not my experience. Sure, there was a lot of juvenile, off-color behavior, some of which I participated in and some of which I was thrust into—to the person who wanted to talk through the decision of ordering a pizza, I hope you did order that pizza and I hope it was as delicious as we’d discussed. But that kind of depravity exists in almost every corner of the internet if you look hard enough—BTS stans, “WAP” jokes, and phishing scams were part and parcel to every three or four questions I saw on the chat, yet acknowledging that such a chat exists in 2020 would by default be flooded with this kind of messaging. The Michaels chat lasted for a small window of time, especially by internet terms, but I spent a glorious evening on it, and I found myself in constant awe of its capacity for conversation.
Rather than ask for people’s favorite episodes of RICK AND MORTY, or ask for song recommendations (both of which were questions I saw in some variation), I simply asked people to tell me their deepest fears and secrets, and I saw far more genuine, seemingly honest cries for help than I ever did opportunities for bad schtick and internet tropes. All I asked was for a sliver of something deeper than casual, surface-level conversation and frequently people dove all the way into the deep end with a complete and total stranger. In fact, of the 30-odd conversations I had with people on michaels.com, a vast majority of them turned into more than JOI jokes and fast food gags. On multiple occasions people brought up troubles they’d had with revealing their true feelings to others, sometimes due to intimacy problems, other times due to social anxiety, oftentimes a self-aware combination of the two. And I’d love to say this was an exaggeration but at least six or seven of those conversations led to that larger topic. I’m not professionally equipped to help anyone, but I did try and listen, to talk through things—as someone messaged back: “Wow, I did not expect counselling thru a Michael’s chat on a Thursday night to be what my life has come to but I’m here for it,” and that sentiment rang true throughout the night.
Initially I fielded a number of back-and-forths with people who were hesitant to buy into my sincerity, but I was rewarded with my first genuine conversation on the platform: a woman who confided in me about one of her best friends. They’d met decades earlier when they were small children through mutual family connections, but they’d never truly connected; both were introverts who believed the other person didn’t like them, she explained. While they’re friends now, she can’t help but harbor a small amount of fear that the other person doesn’t like her still. It took messy relationships with other people and a lifetime of neglecting each other to get to the point where friendship, and maybe more, was possible. It was refreshing to hear her story. And her description of the situation was as messy as my retelling of it, a kind of quiet confession that you haven’t fully worked up into something conversational because it had spent so much time lingering exclusively in your head.
People’s desire to connect was always the focus of conversations. People feel too exposed. The Michaels chat was anonymous, fleeting, and low stakes, so to be asked for something personal with nothing to lose, especially in quarantine, seemed to be a massive relief. These were people confessing they loved their best friends but didn’t know how to muster the courage to tell them. These were people who were afraid their social anxieties would prevent them from meaningfully dating ever. My longest-running conversation that night was with someone who simply didn’t believe that monogamous love was possible. That comment wasn’t coming from some kind of desire to cheat or even an expressed interest in polyamory, rather they fundamentally didn’t believe they had it in them to reach a deeper plain of love with women. What a thing to confess and talk through with a stranger.
We’re all slowly losing our ability to connect with one another, and isolation and quarantine especially has led our brains to slowly rot. But the Michaels chat was pure. It was good. It was what people needed. And now it’s gone.