Chat Rooms

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Chat Rooms

Since the mid-1990s, when large numbers of people all over the world began going "online" to explore the Internet (see entry under 1990s—The Way We Lived in volume 5), millions of them have been chatting with each other in the many chat rooms that have emerged in cyberspace. Chat rooms can be described as the contemporary equivalent of the old "party line," the early telephone exchanges in which several customers shared the same number and thus could eavesdrop on one another's conversations. Today, anyone with modem access and a password can enter into a conversation. Choices include any number of general chat rooms for anonymous socializing or special-interest chat rooms to discuss more specialized topics.

A typical chat room can consist of a dozen or more people using their keyboards to enter quick, pithy statements that are displayed in real time on the screen. To a novice, this can seem like a babble of disconnected voices. Regular users quickly get used to the art of following the discussion thread. Because of the condensed nature of the messages, chatters have developed a shorthand language of abbreviations: "sup" for "what's up?," "k" for "okay," "ic" for "I see," "lol" for "laughing out loud," and so on. Symbols called emoticons communicate meaning, too: for example, ":-)" for a smile, ":-(" for a frown, and "{}" for a hug.

Many chat room discussions seem trivial and even unintelligible, but others have become the digital equivalent of the corner bar or coffeeshop where regular customers routinely gather to "shoot the breeze." Some chat rooms have become serious forums for the exchange of information about topics such as medicine, architecture, food, history, and travel; others have become support groups for people dealing with stressful situations; still others have become informal dating services for people seeking romantic situations.

Chat rooms are seen by some experts as places that facilitate human interaction in a society that is itself anonymous. Advocates of global understanding praise chat rooms for creating a "global village" forum in which people from around the world can share information with each other. The relative privacy of chat rooms—in which anonymous participants are known only by their self-invented name or "handle"—has its downside, however. In a relatively few cases, strangers have taken advantage of trusting chatters to extract personal information or to arrange personal meetings that have resulted in criminal activity. The anonymity also allows people to explore other dimensions of their personalities. Some people crave the psychological insights they claim to receive while posing as a person of a different gender, race, or class.

—Edward Moran

For More Information

Henderson, Harry. The Internet. San Diego: Lucent Books, 1998.

Komorn, Julie. Chat Chat Chat. New York: Scholastic, 1999.

Mutchler, Matthew. "Yes, Virginia, There Are Normal People in Cyberspace." Zine 375. (accessed April 2, 2002).