Internet Chat - an Introduction Content from the guide to life, the universe and everything

Internet Chat - an Introduction

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Internet Chat can be tricky, particularly IRC (chat without the buffer of AOL or Compuserve or the WWW). The old Internet war-horses like to say it's what the Internet was before the web came along. And they say it like it's a good thing. You see, much like the Internet was before beautiful browsers and easy emailers, chat programs tend to be cryptic with odd buttons and counterintuitive user interfaces. Regardless of the software you choose, read the help files.

Chat is probably the most intimidating part of the whole Internet because people can and do watch you. If you're lurking, they know. If you say something stupid, they hear. It's like being at a dinner party where everyone takes turns with a megaphone. Which is all fine providing that no one spits on the mouthpiece.

It's the place where you are most likely to inadvertently injure someone, or have someone tear a chunk out of you. It is also the best place online to form friendships, and one of the few place in cyberspace where folks think to have weddings (the symbol for rice is """"""").

Internet Relay Chat is divided into 'rooms' or 'channels' depending on what program and chat server you're using. Each of these is devoted to a certain topic, or perhaps just a certain person. Anyone can open or close a chat channel at anytime, so while you may be able to locate the person you'd been chatting with before, you probably won't be able to find the channel (CompuServe and AOL are a little different, but I'll let them explain themselves).

Web Chat is also a different creature, and walks, talks and quacks pretty much how you think it will. You write and others respond. Voila. There are thousands of Web Chat forums around as it is easy to put one up on your web site. Your best bet is to check in with one of the clearing houses like the Hot 100 to see if anyone's talking about something you want to hear.

Regardless of how you decide to do it, always follow the basic laws of netiquette to avoid catching a little more than what's coming to you.

Internet Relay Chat

There are hundreds of IRC programs out there, each more or less indestinguishable from the last (with a few exceptions like Microsoft Chat, in which you get to be a cartoon). They are all tricky, they all pop up with screens containing intimidating looking text and they all require typing in coded commands. It's like what would happen if MS-DOS suddenly started chucking poltergeist sentences at you. Duck, back off, and try to catch things from time to time. Eventually you'll learn to chuck back.

So this is what happens:

  • Download your IRC software. If you don't already have it, I've got a neat little list for you right here.

  • After your browser has downloaded it for you, click on it and let your computer unpack it (so far so good, nu?).

  • Find a place to enter your profile. This will include your nickname and other information. If there is information you'd rather everyone not have, don't include it.

  • Stretch. Get a glass of water. Come back. Bring your hands so you can hide behind them.

  • Log onto a server. Somewhere in your IRC menu there'll be an option as to which servers you can use.

  • If that went well you should now have two windows on your screen, one for what's going on in cyberspace and one for what you're going to add to it.

  • Browse around your program and see if you can find an option for 'List' that will tell you about all of the discussions happening on the server at that time. If there isn't a button, type /LIST into the little window, and then hit Return.

  • You should now have up on your screen (after a lapse of perhaps a minute or so) a list of hundreds of channels, topics and the number of users on eachl. If this is a little more than you can deal with type in1/LIST- MIN 8 to get the larger groups up. This will cut out any channels currently hosting fewer than eight people. Vary the number and you vary the number of people in the group.

  • Take a deep breath. Have a sip of water. Grab the bridge of your nose. Let go. Good.

  • Pick a channel. Choose to join it by typing in /JOIN #channel. Now, you always type the '#' before the channel name.2 'Channel' would be any channel. If the one you wanted to see was called 'Toffee' you'd type /JOIN #toffee.

  • You should now have an open window displaying the names of everyone else in the channel (or chat room). If not, type /WHO*, to pull down the names of everyone present.

  • Type a message and hit Return. It should appear in the big window, shortly to be joined by other people in the channel. Make nice and try to have a conversation. Keep everything short, don't sweat the spelling and feel free to pilfer from our acronym dictionary.

  • Now, let's say you're chatting with someone who seems nice and helpful and you want to find out a little more about them. With some software you'll be able to just double-click on their name. With other software you'll have to type /WHO followed by their nickname.

  • If there's nothing in their profile about being a newbie eater, try sending a personal message. Type /MSG followed by whatever it is you want to say. This is sometimes referred to as 'whispering'. If they respond, great. If they don't, try someone else.

  • Rub your shoulders. Pat yourself on your back. Say 'bye' to your new buddies. Type /LEAVE.

That's it. On the next page you'll find some information about opening your own channel and you can click here to find out some more of those user friendly commands, but besides that you are now amongst the initiated.

Chat 3: Opening a Channel

Now that you know how to chat and how to whisper, it's about time you got to call the shots. Or a shot, anyway.

  • You're still linked up to the server, but with the /BYE command, you've left the chat room. Choose a name for your channel. If you've chosen 'hitchhiker', and no one else has it, you now type /JOIN #hitchhiker. You are now the only person hanging out in an empty room.

  • In a bid to get people to join you, type /OP followed by your nickname to inform the operator that you're there and you're available. Specify the topic of your channel by typing /TOPIC and whatever it is you want to chat about.

That's it. Now as people come in you've got the option of kicking them out, changing the subject and... that's about it. Petty power, hey?

Check out the list of commands for other things to do with IRC.

Chat 4: Buddy Lists

Thanks to fine programs like AOL Instant Messenger (which comes with the Netscape Communicator package) and ICQ, it is now possible to know if your friends are online, and to communicate with them via the chat room format.

The programs are easy to use and sort of pretty, and some people claim that they will take over from email in spirit, if not in depth. Check 'em out.

Chat 5: Chat Software

As will the rest of the Internet, there is lots and lots of software on offer. Not all of it is great, but it's there. Try a few and decide for yourself.

Chat Software (diet and regular)
For IRC chat, try the following:

  • macIRC - A favourite IRC program for Mac users
  • mIRC - For Windows machines only
  • The Palace - Animated, to spice the whole thing up a little
  • Visual IRC - A multimedia take on chat

Buddy List Software
If there's someone in particular you want to have a chat with, try:

  • AOL Instant Messenger
  • ICQ
  • Yahoo Messenger

Chat 6: Chat Channel/Room Commands

There are lots of different chat commands. These are a few to get you going. For more, enter the command /HELP in your chat window.

  • /ADMIN server - Provides information about your server.

  • /AWAY I've gone to barbados - Informs your pals that you can't talk any more because you've gone off to a warmer climate, but you're still online and shall be back shortly.

  • /BYE - An unceremonious exit from IRC. This takes you off the channel and off the server.

  • /CLEAR - Clears the contents of the big window.

  • /DCC CHAT - betsy Allows you to have a more private, lengthy chat with Betsy.

  • /HELP - What you type when this list isn't handy. Should give you a listing of all available commands.

  • /HELP /BYE - Provides more information on the /BYE command.

  • /IGNORE #betsy - None of Betsy's messages will show up on your screen, though responses to her messages will.

  • /INVITE betsy - Invites Betsy to join your chat.

  • /JOIN #beasts - Join the chat called 'beasts'.

  • /JOIN #invite - Allows you to go to a channel you were just invited into.

  • /KICK betsy - This command can only be used if you are chanop (channel operator). It means that Betsy can't play anymore.

  • /LEAVE #beasts - Leave the channel called 'beasts'.

  • /LIST -MIN 25 - Lists channels with a minimum of 25 users.

  • /ME picks nose - Allows other users to know that you're picking your nose. If your nickname is Batgirl, this will appear on screen as *Batgirl picks nose.

  • /MOP - Promotes everyone in the channel to the status of operator - anyone can kick out anyone else.

  • /MSG #betsy Can we talk? - Sends Betsy a private message asking her if she will speak with you privately. This function is only good for quick questions rather than full conversations.

  • /NICK Barbarella - Changes your nickname to Barbarella.

  • /OP betsy - This makes Betsy the operator.

  • /PART - The same thing as /LEAVE.

  • /PING #beasts - This checks how long the lag time is for each person on the beasts channel, a process known as 'pinging'.

  • /QUERY - betsy This allows you to start a private conversation with Betsy.

  • /TOPIC - Allows the channel operator to change to topic of the channel.

  • /WHO* - Lists who is currently in the channel.

  • /WHOIS betsy - Allows you to read Betsy's profile (if she has one).

  • /WHOWAS betsy - Allows you to read Betsy's profile after she's left the room.

Further Reading

1Hey - who said this wouldn't be fun?2If you're on a Mac and your keyboard is set to 'British' change the settings in the control panel so the keyboard is se to 'US' standards. The '#', you will find, is the same as the pound (£) key.

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