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What is a Chat Room?
A chat room is any kind of technology that allows for remote synchronous conferencing. It can often mean text-based chatting, centered on some specific topic designated by the chat room host, but it may include visual chat (via cameras or avatars).
While the internet was built to share documents and files, it wasn’t long before our social instinct took over and users began looking for ways to connect to each other. Email provided one-to-one communication, which was extended to groups through the use of mailing lists. Newsgroups and bulletin board systems developed, providing “asynchronous” social communication. Finally, chat room technology provided synchronous (same-time) communication.
In the early days of the commercial internet, chat rooms became a popular mode of communication and social sharing. Services like AOL provided easy-to-use chat room interfaces based on topics or demographics, allowing almost anyone with an internet connection to chat with strangers. Meanwhile, more savvy users chatted in IRC channels, using specialized client software.
Unlike email — which took over the business lives of most modern employees as the dominant form of personal communication — chat rooms and related technology never fully took off outside the realm of technology enthusiasts.
Many of the features and advantages of chat technology exist today in services like Google Hangout and Facebook messaging, but these tend to be organized by social group, not by topic. Semi-synchronous topic-based chat continues on Twitter, with topics delineated by fluid hashtags, rather than specified “rooms.”
To be sure, there are still participating in online chat according to the older models. IRC (for example)still has almost half a million users — but that’s way down from its peak of over a million in 2003, and no where near the number of users of more contemporary social networks like Twitter (236 million users in 2015) and Facebook (over a billion).
Chat Room Software
It is still possible to set up self-hosted chat room. Unfortunately, much of the software is extremely outdated.
Here are a few self-hosted chat applications:
Can I add a chat room my existing website?
Yes. Any of the programs listed above can be added to an existing site, though they will probably take some customization in order to match your look and feel. In addition, you can find chat room plugins for most content management systems, such as WordPress.
Chat Rooms vs Forums
Some forums function as chat rooms, but forums are typically designed as a place for users to get information. Whereas chat rooms are based on the idea of open discussion, with multiple users commenting to each other, forums typically feature very specific topics, with information-based responses.
Hosting Frequently Asked Questions
What are current uses for chat rooms?
Chat rooms can be used for anything, but most chat rooms these days focus on a specific interest. They can be a place to discuss your favorite artist, talk about last night’s episode of Doctor Who, find other parents dealing with a specific developmental or social issue, or get support for your favorite open source project.
How closely do I need to monitor my chat rooms?
That depends on a number of factors. It’s less important if you are approving every member of your chat room, as opposed to allowing public chats. Better still if you know every member of your chat room. In any case, it’s a good idea to monitor them closely, as any open environment is prone to abuse, and chat rooms, while highly useful, can also be very attractive to predators.
Can I use a chat room program for individual chat?
In many cases, yes. A number of organizations use chat room software to provide one-to-one technical or sales support on their website. In this case, the chat room acts more like a two-way Instant Messaging conversation than a tradition chat room, but it can be an inexpensive tool for assisting website users in real time, and can also allow for support from multiple individuals or departments.
Do chat room programs offer any other features, aside from just chatting?
Many of them offer some additional features like offline messaging, video posting, and calendars. But in general, true chat room programs stay very tied to that core functionality, which may be partly to blame for their overall decline.
Can I host a chat room on a company intranet?
Absolutely. As long as your intranet servers meet the minimum requirement, which they probably will, it should be fairly simple to set up a company-wide chatroom, where your employees can quickly post questions or share ideas. In fact, many intranet solutions and business content management tools include some sort of built-in chat system for just this purpose.
How secure are chat rooms?
Most chat room applications will allow you to limit the type of content that can be posted, as well as the markup that can be embedded into posts, which limits the risk of dangerous files being uploaded to your server. However, most chat-room-only tools are fairly old and are no longer receiving regular updates. That means even if issues are identified with the code, it probably isn’t being patched. Using any outdated software on your server increases your vulnerability. In some cases you may be able to find patches in the user community, but these aren’t guaranteed to work.
Can I customize my chat room, or add themes to match my website?
Most chat room programs will include some level of customization and a limited number of themes. For example, phpFreeChat includes five themes, all of which can be customized to fit your organization’s needs. phpFreeChat themes are also responsive to screen size, so they can provide a mobile friendly interface. Better still, chat rooms that are installed as add-ons to your existing CMS should utilize your existing theme, so you won’t need to deal with much, if any, customization.
Is there a way to easily block or remove users?
Any good chat room program will provide the admin with tools for booting members out of a chat room or completely banning them. Some will do this based on the person’s registered username. Others will let you do it based on IP address. While neither is a perfect solution (users can always re-register with a different username, and most home users don’t have static IP addresses or can simply login from somewhere else), it does allow you to quickly resolve any issues, at least in the short term.
I’m curious what these chat rooms look like. Where can I check them out?
There are a number of chat rooms still active, if you just want to see how they work. A simple Google search for popular chat rooms should find you plenty of examples. If you’re interested in testing the features of a specific application, many of them offer demo versions, which allow you to both chat and utilize the administrative features.
Is there any support available for these chat rooms?
Support will vary based on the application you choose. Since many popular chat room applications are no longer being developed, the only support you’ll receive is from their community groups. Before committing to an application, check out their website, see how often they update (or when they last updated), and visit their forums and IRC communities to see how active they are. If no one has posted in the past two years, don’t count on much support.