The Internet has been invaluable in permitting people from around the globe to talk to each other, and one of the easiest ways for people to communicate online is through a chat room. Chat rooms are designated areas on the Internet where people with similar interests can communicate with each other by typing on a keyboard. The conversations happen in real time and typed messages are sent to the other participants, who can then type a message in response. Most chat rooms are categorized by topic, so users can find conversations that interest and apply specifically to them.
Chat rooms are easily accessible and most are free to join. It is possible to search for chat rooms through an Internet browser; literally thousands of chat rooms exist. Most require users to log in with a user name, and there is often an option to add additional personal information as well, things like relationship status, age, and gender. The chat room area will typically be divided into different sections according to interests; almost every topic imaginable is covered in some chat room — from stamp collecting to kangaroo breeding in Australia’s outback. Once a user is logged in, conversations can be had by typing messages back and forth between others.
Within a chat room, there may be a moderator who monitors the content of the conversation in order to prevent abuse. There has been some controversy over the use of moderators within chat rooms; many people consider a moderator to be an infringement of their privacy. Moderators have been known to shut down a conversation if the content is deemed unacceptable or inflammatory.
In a case regarding AOL Inc, previously known as American Online, a moderator shut down a chat room when a heated debate over Irish politics arose between two chat room participants; AOL closely monitored the conversation and eventually decided to shut down the chat room in order to give the participants time to calm down. The controversy arose after upset AOL customers became concerned over privacy issues. In the past, AOL users had to pay for their Internet service; in the same way a person would not expect a telephone company to listen to personal phone calls, and shut them down if the company did not approve of the content, AOL users felt that a privacy rule should also be applied to conversations in chat rooms.
Chat rooms offer a way to learn, talk, and socialize, but there is a flip side. The fact that it is easy to be anonymous has lead to abuse of the system with virtually no consequences. Children and teens love chat rooms, and reports of the dangers of chat rooms are widespread; many cases of child sexual abuse have occurred after minors decide to meet a person with whom they have been chatting. Parents need to be aware of whom their children are conversing with via Internet chat rooms.
There have also been reports that chat rooms lead to social interaction problems; long hours spent alone using chat rooms have been thought to lead to poor social skills. By relying on chat rooms as a primary form of communication with others, social skills can deteriorate. If the chat room is used responsibly, however, it can be a fun and useful tool; it is when the virtual world is used as a substitute for the real world that problems may occur.
While chat rooms are a popular means of communication, many Internet providers and companies provide "forums" on their websites as opposed to chat rooms. Forums differ from chat rooms because they are usually temporarily archived, if not permanently. Also, forums are commonly used to ask questions and have other people give input more than conversing with others for the sake of conversation.