Broadly speaking, a chat room is any online forum in which you can show up and interact with a community, including people you don’t know. While you can certainly interact with people you do know via a chat room, it’s safe to say that the fundamental draw of chat rooms is to interact online with people you don’t already know. When we talk about “stranger danger,” chat rooms are one of the most troubling places on the Internet. They’re also rife with inappropriate content and sharing.
As a technology, chat rooms actually pre-date the Internet by approximately 15 years, going back to the days of CompuServe and bulletin board services accessible through dial-up modems. From those humble, text-only beginnings, chat rooms have become a vast worldwide phenomenon, with features now including audio and video capabilities in addition to traditional text-based content.
The largest facilitators of chat rooms tend to be portal sites like Yahoo! where users can create their own groups on a nearly limitless range of topics (the notable absences being topics that are patently illegal, like child pornography, or topics that happen to violate the corporate ethics of the hosting site). Yahoo! Groups alone hosts more than four million groups on every topic imaginable.
Chat rooms also show up on websites dedicated to specific topics, providing an opportunity for visitors to converse about the topic at hand. In many cases, such sites provide forums, which may be viewed as an asynchronous form of chat. In a forum, messages are posted publicly (sometimes requiring moderation prior to posting) and conversation threads often form around interesting posts.
The traditional chat room model incorporates a text window in which a user may type a message, which is immediately displayed to all other users in the chat room. In a public room with many visitors, the flow of messages across the screen can be incredibly confusing since each message is simply posted in sequential order, and typically no clear conversation thread is visible to a casual observer. In many systems, private chat rooms are provided so that individuals who meet in the public space can find an isolated venue in which to converse privately without all the textual clutter.
The thing that sets chat rooms apart from the other technologies discussed in this chapter is that chat rooms enable open access between complete strangers (independent of whether the chat involves text or video). The potential for abuse in such a setting is clear, and I probably don’t have to paint a much clearer picture of the issues that one may face in such a setting. Studies have suggested that the tendency toward self-disclosure is much greater online than in face-to-face interactions, which is consistent with intuition.2
My philosophy and attitude about chat rooms is very simple: Don’t. In all of my research, study, and time spent online, I have yet to see any redeeming value in randomly striking up conversations with strangers. In fact, I see a tremendous amount of downside to accessing these services. For youngsters, I think it’s crystal clear. Studies have suggested that approximately 100% of regular chat room visitors have been sexually solicited online at least once. But even for adults, the risks of accessing inappropriate content, or of striking up inappropriate relationships, is significant and outweighs whatever perceived value is gained through random conversations with strangers.