Chat rooms -- like e-mail, instant messaging (IM) and online social networks -- are virtual extensions of real-world human interaction. Chat rooms are online spaces where users communicate with one another through text-based messages. It's like a virtual cocktail party, where strangers gather to flirt, argue about politics and sports, ask for advice, talk about shared hobbies and interests, or simply hang out.
Chat rooms have played an important role in the evolution of interpersonal communication over computer networks. E-mail came first in 1972 [source: NetHistory]. Then came USENET, an e-mail based newsgroup started in 1979. Newsgroups became bulletin boards. Some bulletin board users wanted to interact with the group in real time instead of waiting to reply to an ongoing message thread. In the late '70s and early '80s, several small bulletin board communities incorporated chat and IM into their networks.
But the CompuServe CB simulator is widely regarded as the first real-time chat room. Launched to the public in 1980, the CB simulator capitalized on the explosive (if short-lived) popularity of citizen's band radio culture in American country music and movies [source: PC Magazine]. Users could exchange real-time messages (loaded with lots of CB slang) on 40 different channels, which later evolved into the concept of rooms.
In the mid-1980s, a company called PlayNet began tinkering with the combination of real-time chat and online games. Users could play chess or backgammon against an opponent and talk trash at the same time. PlayNet eventually licensed its software to a company called Quantum Link, or Q-Link, which launched a chat room service called People Connection. Q-Link changed its name to America Online (AOL), which still uses the People Connection name for its chat and community services.
In the late 1990s, AOL's chat rooms were some of the most popular in the world. According to statistics from the Pew Internet & American Life Project, 55 percent of online teens and 28 percent of online adults used chat rooms in 2000 [source: Pew Internet & American Life Project]. But by 2005, those numbers had fallen to 18 percent of teens and 17 percent of adults [source: Pew Internet & American Life Project]. Over the years, chat rooms have lost ground to IM and social networks, and have suffered from bad press concerning their safety, especially for teens.
But how do you get started using a chat room? And how do you make sure you and your children have a safe, enjoyable chat room experience? Read on to find out more.
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?
Chat Room Precautions
Anonymity is a strange, powerful thing. The anonymous nature of chat rooms tends to inspire exaggerated behavior in otherwise normal, respectful people. One commentator calls chat rooms "safety valves" for strong emotions, opinions and urges that most people can't, or wouldn't want to express in real life [source: The Industry Standard].
This type of behavior manifests itself in different ways. Chat rooms have always been popular spots for flirting with the opposite sex. One of the unfortunate realities of chat rooms is that sexual talk -- sometimes harmless, sometimes explicit -- often appears in rooms that have nothing to do with dating, sex or relationships. If you're going to spend a lot of time in chat rooms, you have to learn to ignore all the noise and concentrate on your own conversations.
The anonymity of chat rooms also encourages people to share unabashed opinions. People tend to state their thoughts and opinions more emphatically in chat rooms than they would ever dare in real life. Like message boards, chat rooms are popular spots for so-called flame wars in which two or more users enter into a tirade of insults sparked by a minor disagreement.
But these same factors can also work in your favor. For example, if you're looking for honest advice about a personal problem, a chat room could be a great place to go. You'll feel more comfortable sharing the details of your problem, because nobody knows you. And chances are you'll receive frank, empathetic opinions from the other chat room members, especially if you search out rooms that are built around a certain problem or issue.
Chat rooms are also great places to try out new identities and personalities. Teens, in particular, are drawn to chat rooms, because they allow them to experiment with different selves.
Over the years, there have been several high-profile news stories concerning adults who have masqueraded as teenagers in chat rooms in order to lure teens into real-life sexual encounters. There's even a popular television segment on Dateline NBC called "To Catch a Predator", which uses fake teen chatters as bait [source: MSNBC]. According to a recent study in the journal Pediatrics, 15 percent of 10 to 15-year-olds received an "unwanted sexual solicitation online" in 2007 [source: Ars Technica].
There are some general tips and guidelines for chatting safely. First of all, many chat sites are exclusively for chatters who are 18 or older. Teens should congregate on sites and services designed for the exclusive use of younger chatters. The next most important thing is choosing your nickname or user ID. Don't include any personal information in your nickname, like your actual name or where you go to school. And don't include any of that information in a personal profile on a chat site, even if it seems like an appropriate place to do so.
Another general rule for chat room safety is to avoid sharing any personal information in the context of a chat session. Even if someone asks you directly, don't share information about where you live, your phone number, your real name or the names of family members. But the most important rule of all, especially for younger chatters, is never to arrange to meet with someone in real life who you only know from a chat room.
For more information on online communications and related topics, check out the helpful links on the next page.
Related HowStuffWorks Articles
More Great Links
- Peter, Ian. Net History. "The history of email." http://www.nethistory.info/History%20of%20the%20Internet/email.html
- Dvorak, John C. PC Magazine. "A Brief History of Chat." December 11, 2007. http://www.pcmag.com/article2/0,1759,2231493,00.asp
- The Pew Internet & American Life Project. "Teens and Social Media." December 19, 2007 http://www.pewinternet.org/pdfs/PIP_Teens_Social_Media_Final.pdf
- The Pew Internet & American Life Project. "Pew Internet Posts: New Demographic Info and Activities Data" May 24, 2005 http://www.pewinternet.org/PPF/p/1089/pipcomments.asp
- Suler, John. The Psychology of Cyberspace. "Psychological Dynamics of Online Synchronous Conversations in Text-Driven Chat Environments" http://users.rider.edu/~suler/psycyber/texttalk.html
- Voedisch, Lynn. The Industry Standard. "Mad as a Chatter." September 15, 2000. http://www.thestandard.com/article/0,1902,17632,00.html
- Anderson, Nate. Ars Technica. "Online sex predators prefer IM, chat rooms to social networks." February 6, 2008 http://arstechnica.com/news.ars/post/20080206-online-sex-predators-prefer-im-chat-rooms-to-social-networks.html
- Yahoo! Chat. "Chatting Safely on Yahoo!" http://chat.yahoo.com/chatsafetymodule.html