Rock musician Sting chats with fans in an online chat room during a 2001 festival in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

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Getting Started with Chat Rooms

To get started with chat, the first step is to find a chat room that fits your style. In the heyday of chat, this wasn't very difficult. AOL's chat rooms were flooded with users interested in chatting about every topic under the sun. Now the chat universe can feel a little like a ghost town (or a singles bar). But don't get disheartened, there's something out there for everyone. It just might take a little more searching.

A good place to start is with the chat rooms that come with popular instant messaging clients like Yahoo! Messenger and AOL Instant Messenger (AIM). Instant messaging service ICQ actually has some of the most varied and active chat rooms around.

You can also search the Web for chat rooms that fit your interests or needs. There are college basketball chat rooms, car repair chat rooms, tech support chat rooms and emotional support chat rooms. There are chats for Alzheimer's caregivers, punk music fans, Austrian mountain bikers and everything in between. Search around and try to find one that consistently has a dozen or so people online and actively chatting.

To join a chat room, you'll need to pick a nickname or user ID. If you're using a chat room operated by Yahoo! Messenger or AIM, you can use your existing username and password or you can sign up with an alternate username. Most chat rooms allow you to sign up as a guest without a password, or change your nickname as many times as you want, even during the same session.

Most chat Web sites and services have many different room options from which to choose. Some are very specific ("thirtysomething singles") and some are more open-ended ("technology"). Many sites will tell you how many people are already in the room, which gives you an idea of the room's popularity before you enter. Be advised, though, that room topics are mere guidelines, and actual chat conversations frequently drift far from the proposed subject.

When you first enter a chat room, take time to read what other people are already talking about. This isn't always easy, especially in a busy chat room. What you need to look for are threads of coherent conversation among what one observer calls the "buzzing confusion" [source: Rider University]. When you read the scrolling chat log closely, you'll begin to make out overlapping conversations between different sets of users. Pick one that makes the most sense to you and dive right in. Or a simpler approach is to type "Hi everyone" and wait for a friendly chatter to respond.

One feature that's been around since the earliest chat rooms is the ability to send a private message to an individual user that can't be seen by the whole group. Different chat services accomplish this in different ways, sometimes by pressing a special button or tagging the front of the message with the user's name surrounded by the < > signs. A skilled chatter can maintain several public and private conversations at once.

As a nod to innovation, several popular chat services have added special features to chat rooms that break from the text-only tradition. AIM chat, for example, allows you to set up audio or video chats with individual members of the chat room. It's also possible to IM another user directly, outside of the chat room setting.

But what kind of behavior should you expect (or be expected to tolerate) in a chat room? And what can you do to protect yourself and your kids from abusive or predatory chatters?