The Pew Research Center recently studied how young people communicate with their friends. Although e-mail is not used as a daily tool, it hasn't been completely abandoned by today's students. In fact, it's used primarily to talk (communicate) with institutions (like colleges) and adults (like professors). Text messaging has grown astronomically in the last three years by this age group, while other forms of communication seem to have stabilized or dropped off slightly.
The low-cost, mobile nature of text messaging is probably a major factor in its quick adoption and growing popularity among today's students. Texting also allows for rapid, asynchronous communication with a wide network of friends, which ordinary phone calls do not provide. There is some research to indicate that texting is used primarily to maintain relationships, and that girls use it more often than do boys as a means of socializing.
In the Confer classroom, the closest equivalent to texting is the chat area. There are ample opportunities to "talk" to other classmates and/or the instructor, but these may not have the same impact or serve the same purpose as does the chat message, generally directed "to the room" and instantly shared with anyone who's looking at the screen.
Chat, in other words, may be the tool best fitted to creating and reinforcing social ties and friendships between and among your students. Because it is not anonymous, but is devoid of "face" and "voice" identifiers, it has a kind of power in the online environment that is reassuring and self-reinforcing. It may also provide valuable social support and comaraderie to otherwise isolated students in your classroom.
It's not easy to monitor chat when you're busy providing other content to your students. That may incline you to take it away from your students, and there is certainly justification in trying to eliminate unnecessary distractions. But it may also be necessary, given the nature of modern communications and growing social networking trends, to include chat in at least part of your online classroom in order to promote interaction and the co-evolution of learning and insights.