Chat (online), simultaneous text communication between two or more people via computer. Chat is synchronous—one person types a message on their keyboard and the people with whom they are chatting see the message appear on their monitors and can respond almost immediately. Other kinds of computer communication are asynchronous. E-mail, for example, may not be delivered or read until minutes or hours after it is sent, and any response need not be immediate.
Chat requires each user to have a computer connected to an electronic network. The network might be a local area network within a business, or it might be the Internet. Users also need a chat system, software that controls the connection between the computers of the people who are chatting. Many chat systems are free.
Chat is most commonly used for social interaction. For example, people might use chat to discuss topics of shared interest or to meet other people with similar interests. Businesses and educational institutions are increasingly using chat as well. Some companies hold large online chat meetings to tell employees about new business developments. Such meetings are particularly useful for companies whose employees are spread out geographically—companies with large sales forces, for example. Small workgroups within a company may use chat to coordinate their work. In education, teachers use chat to help students practice language skills and to provide mentoring to students. History students may chat with elders who lived through the period of history the students are studying. Science students may chat with professional scientists.
II HOW CHAT WORKS
There are many chat systems, including Internet Relay Chat (IRC), America Online (AOL) Chat, and Microsoft Chat. The different systems are very similar, but users can generally only chat with other people who are using the same system.
Each chat system may have thousands of users spread throughout hundreds of chat rooms. Chat rooms are a feature of the system’s software that allows people with similar interests to send messages to one another without receiving messages from all of the other people using the system. Chat rooms vary in topic and in level of conversation. Usually a chat room’s name describes the topic people in it are supposed to discuss.
Most chat systems have both predefined and user-created chat rooms. When people connect to a chat system, they can choose to participate in the rooms they find interesting or useful. Many systems have chat room operators who may remove people from the chat room if they do not obey the chat room’s rules.
Chat rooms are usually dedicated to a particular group of people, such as teens, or to discussions limited to a single subject area, such as politics. Some chat rooms cover technical topics (computer programming languages or Web site design, for example), and others focus on aspects of popular culture (the television show Star Trek, for example). Chat rooms dedicated to topics such as computer trouble-shooting can be useful sources of information because many people with expert knowledge enjoy helping others online.
Some chat systems provide special moderated chat rooms, particularly for chats with celebrities. A chat room may have hundreds of people talking at once. A moderator and a set of rules control who receives messages from whom in order to prevent a flood of messages flowing across people’s screens too fast to read. The moderator controls who may ask questions of the guest of honor. In some of these special chat rooms, participants are organized into virtual “rows,” as if they were in an auditorium. Users may chat freely with others in the same row, but not with people in other rows. Everyone in all rows hears the presentation given by the featured speakers on the “stage.”
Chat has its own jargon. People who chat commonly use abbreviations. BRB, for example, means ‘be right back.’ IMHO means ‘in my humble opinion.’
III PRECAUTIONS FOR USING CHAT
People chatting cannot see one another, and they often do not know one another. As a result of this anonymity, some people are not always truthful while chatting. People on chat channels may lie about almost anything: their age, their sex, where they live, what they look like. Some people think this deception is acceptable and fun. They want to find out whether people will treat them differently if they pretend to be older or the opposite gender. Other people feel that this deception is unethical. Chat users should never assume that the people with whom they are chatting are who they say they are.
Most people who use chat are friendly and well meaning, but there are a small number of criminals who use chat to take advantage of others, particularly of teenagers. Because chat users often do not know the people they are talking to while chatting, it is important that users never tell anyone their full name, address, or other information that might allow another chat user to find them. Even giving out a phone number can be dangerous; some people who have given a phone number to seemingly friendly strangers online have later been forced to change their number or even get an unlisted one to prevent repeated harassing calls. Most importantly, people should be very careful about arranging to meet in person someone they do not know. Teenagers and children who wish to exchange personal information with someone they meet online should always do so under the supervision of a parent or guardian.
Amy S. Bruckman