Look Who's Talking Still
a brief explanation of chatting on the Web 
by Ed Rios

Web "chatting" is fast becoming the web's most popular unknown service, a service that may be a bit of a mystery to most of us. If you haven't chatted on the web, you haven't lived (or so I've been told). Well, to make a short story longer, I had the opportunity to "chat" on the web and I was surprised. So, I begin my tale at the beginning. 

It was a hot summer day in November (Texas weather, you know) and I, being a admirer of the science fiction genre was made aware of a convention occurring in a place far, far away via the television. What caught my attention, was that this event was simultaneously occurring on the web and that if I logged on, I could enter a "chat" session" with many science fiction authors including one I enjoy reading, Harlan Ellison. 

My curiosity was sparked so I decided to investigate. I logged in at the scheduled time and my adventure began. When I got to the site, I found I had to download an "IRC" client. A what? I asked myself. I shrugged and clicked away, following the directions to get the client installed. After about 15 minutes I was ready to enter a "chat room". 

I clicked on the icon and I was in. My screen was divided into two halves. The left half had information on the speaker (Harlan Ellison) and the right half had a scrolling box of text which were the questions being asked as well as his responses. It was interesting. I watched, read, and finally asked a question. The delay was about 10 minutes before I saw my question scroll through. The great thing was - I got an answer! What fun! The moral of this story is: if you don't watch too much TV and you do read books, you might find out who Harlan Ellison is! 

Of course, our story has a sequel (as do most blockbusters) in that my curiosity had not been satisfied. I wanted to understand more about "chatting" on the web. I wanted to increase my vocabulary with more technical acronyms. I took a lesson from my three year old son and kept asking "Why?" My three year old looked at me and shrugged his shoulders. 

I learned that IRC stands for Internet Chat Relay. IRC has been described as the Internet version of a CB radio. I think this is a crude comparison and is more accommodating to IRC in its early beginnings back in 1988 (a millennium in computer time).

 It was originally written by A Finnish man named Jarkko Oikarinen and was a DOS-like text screen filled with commands as well as messages. It quickly spread from Finland to over 60 countries worldwide. 

There are "channels." "handles" and even it's own jargon. IRC is a multi-user communication system that brings a level of interactivity to the web. People gather on channels (also known as chat rooms) for public or private conferences. IRC is constantly evolving. In this day of Windows-this and Windows-that, several companies have produced software that is IRC-like with real-time interactivity. They present a graphical environment where you can create yourself as an avatar (an icon-face with personality) and your conversation appears in cartoon bubbles and you actually visit a virtual room. This is interesting because you can see others around you. Now, before you fill my e-mail box with deep psychological discussions about the ramifications of self confidence, self acceptance, and wearing masks, please note that this author believes that IRC should always be used for its entertainment value. 

With that said, I continue. 

IRC really came to light in 1991 during the Persian Gulf War. Updates from around the world were transmitted across the wire. Many peopled tuned into the same "channel" for accurate accounts from the scene as well as what could be described as one of the largest "press conferences" in the world since users could actually interact with eyewitnesses. In 1993, during the coup against Boris Yeltsin, users in Moscow gave the world live reports that were often more informative than the news networks. So, as you can tell, IRC has important uses and continues to gain momentum. 

How does it work? How do I get it? How can I begin chatting? These were all questions I asked after my first experience. I searched and found the "quick and dirty" method involved using a client called mIRC (I chose mIRC 4.72 32 bit. For Win32s and Win95 with a 32 bit winsock which is shareware and can be downloaded from the Internet). 

Once installed on my Windows 95 system, you must connect to an IRC server. This involves a little configuration which wasn't as obvious to me and took a little time. Before long it was time to connect. There are several places on the Internet to hit and with a little searching, you can find one you like. You give yourself a nickname and enter a chat room. This program is text based and all action appears in the text window scrolling on your screen. 

Needless to say, it was interesting. It was also a bit chaotic. The server I visited was pretty generic and the chat room I entered was also general. So many different conversations were going on. As with many things on the web that are open to everyone, some language is not appropriate for younger kids even in a general forum. I could see that in an organized, topic driven, chat room that this environment could be beneficial. Who knows? Maybe a SIG will meet in a chat room someday. I guess it would be called a "virtual" SIG. 

If you're interested in chatting, try it. Be prepared for a sub-culture that is fast developing. There is etiquette and penalties for not following etiquette (including being banned from IRC Servers). I can see the appeal if you know where to go. I've heard of "chat junkies" who socialize on the web all the time. Once again, I do not advocate this practice. It's fun and can be informative. I would like to see a chat room used for educational or "web conferencing" purposes. We'll see. I'm a novice who still needs some "play time" with this, and I'm searching for servers that are more topic driven. The moral of this story is simple for me: "Listen to the three year old." 

Ed Rios is currently working on his second science fiction novel in addition to co-chairing two of the HTML SIGs for APCO. In his "day job", he works as a Systems Analyst for a Fortune 500 company here in San Antonio.