Editors note: This is one of several columns that I wrote for the Columbia Missourian. They were originally called Your Digital World
Bulletin board systems and e-mail groups are a great way to get involved in communities on the Internet.
People looking to take their involvement to a new level should consider the two best interactive ways to connect with people.
Chat rooms Imagine all of the chatters as being at a great big electronic cocktail party. You mill about looking for interesting people and conversations. At a party, people talking about the same topic tend to cluster together; online they make up a chat room.
If youve just entered the chat room youll probably want to mill about sampling bits of conversation until you find the room that interests you. Once there, many people lean against the digital walls and listen in; its called lurking. If youre new to chat you should get to know the people and the topic that the rooms conversing about before speaking up. However, lurking for a long period of time is considered impolite by other users because youre taking up a space a potential chatterbox could fill.
Many of you may remember the perverts will snatch my child via a chat room fear when chatting first became big. Those fears are grounded in reality. Just as you wouldnt let children walk around a strange cocktail party unattended, dont let them chat alone.
Adults should be wary as well. Many people misrepresent themselves online. Its part of the allure for some, for others its a way to cheat people. No legitimate user will ever, ever, ever ask you for your password or credit card number. Dont give them out and report the person to whomever is running the chat system.
America Online is probably the biggest proprietor of chat rooms, but you can find many Web-based ones dedicated to general chatting, or rooms on sites about specific topics, just like BBSs.
Instant Messaging If a chat room is like a cocktail party, then IM is like a telephone.
IM programs, such as ICQ, MSN Instant Messenger and AOL Instant Messenger run in the background and spring to life when someone sends a message or IMs you, just like a telephone doesnt ring until you get a call.
In order for you to IM someone you need to have his or her screen name or e-mail address and, this is where it gets tricky, he or she needs to be on the same system as you.
Some of the IM programs wont talk to other ones. Most notably AOL Instant Messenger, the most popular program, wont play nice with other programs. A few new programs such as Trillian (www.ceruleanstudios.com) can connect with all the popular services. Expect a heated battle over IM interoperability in the near future.
IMing has quickly become the hottest thing on the Internet, surpassing chat rooms as the preferred way to get connected. Id suggest using chat rooms to find new people and IM to keep in touch with them later, just as youd use a cocktail party and a telephone.