On-line chat rooms are becoming the hot new way for kids to connect with their favorite rock stars, movie stars and each other.
What do you do when you want to talk, meet people, goof around or collect opinions on . . . anything? Go to an on-line chat! It’s hardly what most expect because an on-line chat can go from completely calm to collectively chaotic in a flash. Of course, the unpredictability is exactly what makes it so much fun.
Chat is an interface that allows visitors talk to each other. Instead of hearing each other, though, a type-written dialogue scrolls past on your computer screen. Most chats are organized into a hierarchy of ‘rooms,’ each one having a specific topic, but the reality is that people often talk about anything and everything. The number of people in a room varies, but there is usually a maximum limit set by the proprietor of the site (rooms fill up fast).
Why is chat so popular? Two reasons are anonymity and equality-the geek in his or her bedroom can now be a powerful warlord or rule the roost through an adeptness with words and software.
Chat used to be a slow and cumbersome beast, with messages taking a long time to appear and refresh on your screen. Today, chat involves real-time text messaging, emotions, icons and new languages, all of which are helping to establish a new communication dynamic (see sidebar). The trend these days is toward forums and significantly more involvement by Web site proprietors. A forum happens when a site hosts an event and relevant guests arrive to interact with their legions of fans. For example, MTV Online will hold a Q&A with bands like Chumbawamba or The Backstreet Boys.
A forum is an effective value-added activity because it actively builds communities and generates site traffic. For users, the value is in the content of the forum, the entertainment and the use of a highly interactive medium. On a more pragmatic level, a visitor gets to meet, greet and talk to people around the globe. A user’s biggest constraint is his or her ability to type.
The current chat environment is varied. There are large sites that generate a whack of traffic, such as CNET, Yahoo and ESPN. On the other end, there are a lot of smaller, niche-oriented sites that are more tightly aligned to lifestyles. Examples of these include the on-line magazines that are found at www.stim.com, www.bust.com and www.minxmag.com.
An example of one of the more innovative sites on the smaller end of the scale is 88hiphop (www.88hiphop.com), a music site developed by Pseudo Programs. The site hosts live radio shows that incorporate text (chat and e-mail), audio and video into its broadcasts.
During a show, DJs and MCs will take live questions from listeners through calls, chat or e-mail. Each MC has a computer with a camera positioned on top feeding RealVideo visuals of the MC and DJs to the site (sound is by RealAudio). A ‘chat jockey’ handles and directs questions to keep everything flowing. The goal of this site is to facilitate the most comprehensive interaction possible between the hosts, their guests and the fans. There is little doubt that this is exactly what the chat accomplishes.
Another funky chat innovation is the Internet Pager by iChat (www.ichat.com). The Pager is new instant messaging software that offers users the ability to send instant messages, an on-line friends list that tells users when their pals are on-line, instant private chat, profiles of people using the service and the capacity to send RealMedia files. The best part is, it’s free. (AOL has a similar technology called Instant Messenger.) Internet Pager is a software that essentially provides users with their own personal chat area! The next millennium seems very bright at iChat because instant messaging is the wave of the future.
What to look for in the future of on-line chat? Chat rooms will become more specialized as more people come on-line and immerse themselves in chat. Users will see an increased integration of chat with audio and video; the quality of visuals and sound will increase dramatically. Finally, there will be more enterprise-based applications such as discussion databases, communication access (like instant messaging) for those who are continually on-line, and real-time Web communications so that companies can provide customer service using chat.
Chat is all about establishing a community, building it and maintaining it. The goal of chat is to increase the amount of traffic strolling through a site and to continually expose visitors to new content. Ultimately, it’s about relationships because making and meeting friends, and just gabbing with them, is an incredibly compelling reason to log on.