Some of my favorite early Internet memories came from visiting chat rooms: I started out using Microsoft Comic Chat and graduated to AOL chat rooms early on. When the Internet was young (and there wasn’t as much to do), it was pretty easy to become entranced by the number of random topics in which one could instantly discuss in real time. It was all honest fun, but I won’t lie, there was definitely that underlying sense of “OMG, I can totally lie about who I am, and no one will be the wiser.” This, of course, being a choice that many Internet users make to this day.
Having grown out of AOL, I moved on to vanilla IRC, where everything changed. Finally, an actual sense of community (and that desire to please the channel ops for some mod privileges). Yet somewhere along the line, ICQ and AOL Instant Messenger came along and usurped IRC by simply establishing presence: if you wanted to talk to someone, you just sent them an IM -- no more waiting around in the chat room to see if they’d pop in.
The Internet would be a happier place if we still used this, I think.
But the chat culture that we once knew and loved hasn’t disappeared completely, although its shape has changed significantly. IRC is still widely used, but these days it tends to be a tool too raw for use outside the geek set, where it’s frequently employed in conference “back-channels” or listener discussions for podcasts such as This Week in Tech . IM has become a de-facto mode of communication amongst friends and co-workers, so ubiquitous Google has begun to merge it with email (first with Gchat, and now with Google Wave). But for that random and serendipitous sense of discovery, where can the chat-hungry turn?
IRC still thrives in the podcasting and gaming worlds.
Using Twitter as a “chat room” has been the answer for many, although it’s not hard to tell why broadcast messaging crossed with the inability to filter might be construed as a misuse of the platform. Granted, this was even more of an issue before Twitter defaulted to showing only the replies of people you follow, but there was a time when it wasn’t uncommon to see someone demanding two chatters “get a (private) chat room!”
I never said they wouldn’t be creepy
FriendFeed (recently acquired by Facebook) hasn’t enjoyed the same widespread adoption as Twitter, but I think it’s a much better host for conversation. Comments on posts load almost as quickly as a live chat, and the ability to upload media expands its usefulness. But if it’s the random meetings by chance you miss, Omegle.com is your one-stop shop for finding a perfect stranger to engage in completely bizarre conversation. It’s your choice as to whether you want to play the straight man, or if you’d rather see how badly you can confuse your anonymous discussion partner (or worse).
Sidewiki lets you interject comments and links on existing pages
The near future looks very interesting for chat, particularly when it comes to a new Google technology that allows you to expand the definition of a “chat room.” Dubbed Sidewiki , the system allows users of a web site to discuss and share information with others in a dedicated side-panel. This is also reminiscent of StumbleUpon and GetGlue , two other addons that let you discuss web content without browsing away from the page you’re viewing. And a simple search for “chat” in the Firefox plug-in directory brings up a big list of real-time chat sidebars.
See? These people are already using it wrong and admit it!
Finally, though they may not be popular among the tech elite, simple chat rooms do still exist, from Yahoo Chat to Meebo . As our meatspace lives become increasingly intertwined with our online personas, it’s nice to know that there are still some safe havens where we can go to be our random, serendipitous selves.