Would you like to converse with other people from the comfort of your desktop? With online chat, you can communicate in real time with people all around the world. In most cases, you don't need any special software, just your web browser. (For the best results, we recommend that you use the latest version of your favorite browser.)
Type to Me
The word “chat” may be somewhat misleading because you're not really talking to anyone, just typing and reading text messages that participants write. Once you enter a chat room, which is really a web page that runs special software, you can choose to just read the exchanges, known as lurking, or you can join in by posting your own messages.
Many chat rooms focus the conversation on specific topics, such as health, politics, football and so on. That way people with similar interests can find one another. Sometimes chat sessions lead to stimulating exchanges, but they can also be a waste of time. Be aware that some chat rooms are adult in nature. Exchanges can be sexually oriented, so parents take note. None of this should stop you from trying this electronic interaction. It can be a lot of fun and the price is certainly right–generally, it's free–so there's little to lose.
A New You
The first step is to locate a chat room that interests you. At the end of this article, you'll find some good places to start, or try an online search using the keywords “chat rooms.” Once you access the website, you will usually be required to register by providing some personal information. You can use your real name, but many people make up a name. Not only does it conceal your identity, offering you some privacy, but it lets you assume a new identity. It can be similar to role-playing, where you can be anyone you want. Therein lies some of the fun, but be aware that other people may be living out their fantasies online as well. “Wild Bill” might be a teenage girl. You should also know that if you don't sign in with a name, you may be assigned the default names Anonymous or guest. With these monikers, others in the chat room may avoid you.
After you choose your chat persona, you may also be able to select an image to represent you. These graphics, called avatars can be anything from a frog to a prince or princess or a mythical being. Although communicating online lacks the nuances we get when talking face-to-face, humorous graphics personalize the experience in a small way, and break the monotony of a text-only screen. Some people even include personal photos, but it’s a good idea to use caution, particularly at first. Remember, you’re joining a group of strangers, and you may not want them knowing too much about you right away, including what you look like. Equipped with a name and possibly a character, click the Enter button and follow the instructions to choose a chat room.
Join the Crowd
Once inside, you may find yourself in the middle of an ongoing conversation. Take a few minutes to absorb the gist of the exchange. There's no harm in lurking for a while before you join in. In fact, it's not uncommon for chat rooms to have many more lurkers than participants. As the interaction continues, new postings appear at the top or bottom of the list. Once you feel confident enough to participate in the discussion, type your message in the blank box at the bottom of your screen and click the Talk button or hit the Enter or Return key on your keyboard. Soon your message will be posted in the chat room and people may respond.
The same rules of behavior apply in chat rooms as they do to other online communications. Review the article on netiquette to avoid offending anyone. To minimize the amount of typing, people often use emoticons and abbreviations. For a list of common ones, see the Smileys article.
If you want, you can make a general posting to everyone in the chat room, expounding your views. But just like in the real world, you can also address your comments to a specific person. “Hey, Wild Bill, I had just the opposite experience . . .” Although everyone can read your message, it's clear that it's intended for a particular individual. Some chat rooms let you initiate private conversations by clicking on the name of a participant.
Video Chat Rooms
Some chat rooms allow video chatting, where you can see live video feeds from active participants. This type of chat requires you to have a webcam and microphone. These are included with most laptops and mobile devices, but if you’re using a desktop computer you may need to buy them separately. Fortunately, they’re fairly inexpensive. In addition to video chatrooms, there are a number of applications that allow users to video chat with friends. You can learn more about these services on our Video Conferencing page.
Privacy and Safety
Chat rooms are a great way to meet people with similar interests as yours, and there’s a good chance you will make some truly wonderful friends. But as with anything online, proceed in these interactions with caution and skepticism. Remember that all your comments are public. Even if it appears that there is only one other person in a room, others can be lurking. It’s also important to keep in mind that anyone can join a chat room and create whatever identity they please. Just because someone says he’s a 19-year-old college student looking to meet other vintage video game collectors, doesn’t mean he isn’t really a 50-year-old guy who lives with his parents. He could also be an identity thief. Or he could be your mom, making sure you’re not doing anything you shouldn’t.
No matter how well you get to know someone in a chat room, consider them a stranger and act appropriately. Never send someone your personal or financial information. Never send other users money. If you decide to meet someone from a chat room, bring a friend along and meet in a public location. If you’re a parent, it’s a good idea to closely monitor everything your children do online, particularly if they are participating in chat rooms, as there have been many cases of these sites being targeted by child predators. For more tips on protecting yourself online, review our Safety Tips and Safety Tips for Parents articles.
Alternatives to Chat Rooms
With the rise of social networking, many people are moving away from traditional chat rooms and instead of finding groups of people through the various social media outlets online. These all have their advantages and disadvantages compared to traditional chatrooms. Facebook has many groups that you can search for and ask to join, or you can create your own. Once you are a part of a group, you can interact with the other members similar to the way you would in a chat room. However, these conversations tend to be less real-time compared to chat rooms, because group members can read and respond to your postings whenever they feel like going online.
Twitter offers an interesting alternative, in that you don’t need to join a group, you simply have to find the correct hashtag (#). Hashtags are added to tweets to categorize a post and allow users to search for conversations around the topics they are interested in. You can search Twitter for a specific hashtag, or just browse the list of popular conversations going on right now. These conversations are open to the world, so you can get a variety of opinions and perspectives. However, everything you post is public, so you lose the closed community you can get from some chat rooms and even closed Facebook groups.
Most other social media platforms have their own take on groups or chatrooms. LinkedIn, for instance, has several professional and interest-based groups that members can join to post questions, helpful articles, and more. You can have new posts emailed to you daily or weekly, so you can stay current without having to log in every day. To learn more, visit our Social Network page.
There are plenty of resources available to get you started with online chatting, many of which are free. The links below include some popular chat programs as well as chat lists, but there are many, many other sites available. A quick web search for “chat rooms” will give you plenty of sites you can look through. Or, if you know what type of group you’re looking for, including that in your search. For example, if you want to find people interested in classic movies, search for “classic movie chat room”–there are plenty of great sites you can try out. Happy chatting!
- ICQ, a popular software program for chats can be downloaded for free from the ICQ website.
- Many instant messaging programs, such as AOL Instant Messenger (AIM), offer a selection of public chat rooms you can connect to once you log in to their program.
- Services such as Paltalk can connect you to thousands of chat rooms, which you can search by type and topic.
World Wide Webcams
Why settle for just typing messages to friends and family when you can see them too? With an Instant Messaging program (IM) and a webcam, you can enhance your online communication with real-time images. There's no need to type a when you can flash your buddy a smile.
A webcam is an inexpensive video camera that connects to your computer. It's designed to send a stream of video images over the Net. If you shop around, you can buy a decent color camera for under $50 USD.
The easiest way to become webcam-enabled is to use an instant messaging service that supports webcams, such as Windows Live Messenger or Yahoo! Messenger. If you don't already have the software you can download it for free.
For instructions, read our article on Instant Messaging. To communicate with someone, he or she may have to use the same service as you, since some IM services aren't compatible. (Fortunately, Windows Live Messenger and Yahoo! Messenger users can now communicate with each other.) Also, sending and receiving video images requires a great deal of data transfer; you'll get the best results with a broadband connection.
Typically the camera plugs into your computer's USB port, but before you do this, read the support information of the IM service you plan to use.
Once your webcam is plugged in, open your IM program. Depending on the service you use, you may have to click a webcam button to invite someone to view your camera. Once the webcam is enabled, an image appears in a small window on your screen.
You can also record video messages and e-mail them to friends and family. Open the software that came with the camera. Make sure you look your best, then click the Start or Record button. When you're done, click Stop. Most software allows you to replay your message. If you're happy, name the video file and save it. Next, attach it to an e-mail message. The recipient shouldn't need any special software to play your video clip.
Lighting the Way
While the price is right, don't expect high-resolution images from these diminutive cameras. Other than placement of the camera, webcams don't offer much control; exposure is automatic and many have no focus or zoom. But you can improve the image quality with proper lighting. Make sure that you are not backlit–no bright light source behind you–or you will appear as a silhouette. For ideal lighting, place one light (perhaps a lamp with a 100-watt bulb) to one side of you and behind the camera; on the other side, place a lamp with a 60-watt bulb. This arrangement is flattering and eliminates strong shadows on your face. Now you're ready to face the Web.