The Cutting Edge: COMPUTING / TECHNOLOGY / INNOVATION : The Charms, Pitfalls of Live Chat


May 24, 1995|DANIEL AKST

Last fall, my life as a happy-go-lucky cyberspace wanderer took me to a friendly little computer bulletin board system in the metropolis of York, Pa. This BBS was a reasonably successful venture despite a relatively small number of users, and the reason was live chat. Subscribers to the Cyberia BBS would log on for hours, typing merrily away at one another until they got tired and went to bed, or otherwise were forced to acknowledge life away from the keyboard. One user reported spending four hours a night chatting on this BBS.

The charms--and pitfalls--of live chat became apparent when I asked users why they liked chatting on-line as opposed, say, to going to some meeting place.

"There really aren't any," wrote Andy Christ, one of the chatters I encountered. "Plus, it's kinda hard to go out and meet people and be totally comfortable. I can be sitting here in my underwear and no one has to know about it."

"You got to look out for the weirdos though," wrote Cara Chronister, who was also chatting on Cyberia. She added, "You don't want to give just anyone your number or address."

I think these responses say a lot about the draw of cyberspace generally for Americans today. For about 30 years now, we've been dismantling traditional communities built around blood ties and proximity, attempting to replace them with larger communities built around lifestyles and interests. What modern suburban life has eliminated is serendipity--the kind of thing you imagine happening in a good pub, where you're likely to run into people you know, but also likely to run into someone interesting you don't know.

Because technology--the automobile, television, VCRs--helped bring us here, I guess we figure technology might also help bring us back. Thus the enormous popularity of live chat.

For instance, most computer bulletin board systems are unprofitable labors of love, but those that do make money often emphasize chat. Among the major on-line services, America Online is probably the king of live chat. Chat functions on this service are extremely easy to use and customize, offering a ready opportunity to meet new people and also, when you're in the mood, to set up private rooms so you and others can get together without gate crashers.

On the Internet, live chat has gained increasing popularity via a 7-year-old Finnish invention known as Internet Relay Chat. When I first tried IRC, it struck me as a powerful system for whiling away countless hours watching people with nicknames like Slasher and MoonChild ramble on in incomprehensible code marked by a lot of on-line leering.

Comparing IRC to the Cyberia BBS is like comparing York, Pa., to New York City. But after I went back a couple of times, I started to sense some of the attraction IRC holds for people. I even met some nice folks.

Before we dive in here, a word of caution: IRC is an untamed area of cyberspace. If your on-screen persona is female, you'll probably get propositioned. You can block out real bozos, and you can adopt any persona you wish, which is part of the charm of the thing. And you will, sooner or later, be surprised at who you meet. Good friendships and even marriages have been made on IRC.

All you really need to use IRC is an Internet account and perhaps half a dozen simple commands. If you access your Internet account from a command line, just type IRC and chances are you'll be connected. If you run client software on your own machine--programs such as Trumpet Winsock, Netscape, Eudora and so forth--you need to use an IRC client program and connect to an IRC server. For instance, Netcom has its own server at

Welcome to IRC. The first thing to understand is that most communication occurs only within "channels," just like on the CB radios that were so popular in the '70s. You'll find hundreds of such channels each time you log on, and you can easily create a new one of your own, which will disappear as soon as you log off. By and large, channels begin with the # sign, as in #hottub, a sort of running IRC party.

To see which channels are available, use the /LIST command. Since there are so many, better try /LIST-min 5, which gets you a list of channels with more than 5 people present. (Note the / before the command; all IRC commands begin with the forward slash.)

Before jumping into a channel, pick a nickname. For instance, type /NICK BigFoot if you want BigFoot to be your nickname. Don't be surprised if people call you Big or BF for short.

OK, now you can join a channel--#hottub, let's say. If you decide to wade in, just type /JOIN #hottub. Type in some greetings and you'll see them appear on screen, along with whatever everyone else types. Remember, though, you're immersing yourself in a conversation already under way. (When you're bored with #hottub, just join another channel and you're out.)

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