Internet chat comes in many colours, shapes and forms. Some people find their way onto Web chat-rooms, such as those found at Yahoo!, others will look toward the seemingly endless sea of IRC channels out there, but very few know about the world of talkers. Read on to discover the chat that the 'Net forgot...
What is a Talker?
A talker is a computer program, running on someone's computer (often, but not exclusively, in a university), designed for the purpose of Internet chatting.
What makes talkers distinctive is their command-driven environment, similar to that of a MUD. For example, in order to say hello to the room, someone called Owl might type "say Hello" resulting in an output in the talker of "- Owl says 'Hello'". If Owl then wanted to tell someone called Nitina something, he might type something like "tell nitina Hello there, long time no see!", and Nitina will see "> Owl tells you 'Hello there, long time no see!'". Of course, there are shorter versions of all the commands, such as an apostrophe (') instead of 'say', and there are hundreds of other commands on every talker for moving between rooms, playing games with the other spods (see later), and all kinds of other things.
Talkers are accessed using the telnet protocol, which is pure character interaction, much like the MS-DOS prompt or a Unix shell. For this reason, all the talker's action is done in a single window. This can be slightly disorienting at first, but is very useful for the dedicated spod, as it reduces screen-clutter.
Regular users of talkers are often referred to as spods. Spods, on average, show some very different qualities to the kinds of people who usually haunt chat rooms...
Due to the slightly complicated nature of the interface to talkers, spods tend to be those who have long attention spans (computer programmers are very common, as are English teachers), but are usually procrastinators1 too. It is very common to find spods who don't talk for several hours on end (this type of spod is referred to as an idler).
Spods are easily identified by their spod-name. This is usually something very short (no-one is called Researcher55678666 on talkers), and rarely varies from talker to talker, as people usually choose a name that other people won't want such as an obscure character from their favourite novel.
If a spod likes a talker, he will usually get residency there. This is much like having a Researcher account on h2g2. He will get a personal room, that can be customised to his own personal tastes, a profile, a title (phrase that goes with his name) and many more options depending on the talker.
The History of Talkers
The story of talkers begins with MUDs. Although these text-based multiplayer worlds were primarily games, they did involve some element of chat. Characters could talk to each other using natural language, but were still restricted by the rules of the MUD, such as talking in character2, and the possibility of one's character being killed. Clearly, there was a market for MUD-like dimensions where users are not restricted by these things, and join in primarily to chat with each other, with the gaming aspect being pushed aside.
A student at Warwick University in the UK named Chris 'Cat' Thompson began playing with MUD source code3 and came up with the first ever Internet talker, called Cat Chat, in 1990. This was very simplistic but still often attracted many users, showing that talkers had a promising future.
One of Cat Chat's regular users, also at Warwick University, called Daniel 'Cheeseplant' Stevens saw the potential for a talker with many more features and private chatting. In one long day in 1991 he produced the code for Cheeseplants House [sic] and brought with it a revolution. By 1992, Cheeseplants House's software was into its third revision, and had up to 100 people connected to it at once. After some controversy with the law in this year, the talker was forced to shut down.
The talker community needed a new home, and several programs popped up all over the place, but none were too popular until Simon 'Burble' Marsh (also at Warwick University) came up with Elsewhere. It was hidden from the system admins and consequently shut down when it was discovered. However, the talker was popular, in a cult-type way, and was reopened at Florida State University by Michael 'Footsteps' Wheaton under the name Foothills. Foothills dramatically increased the number of spods in the world, thanks to its American location. It moved from university to university, east and west of the Atlantic, having problems at each location.
Another talker was being coded in the background by some Foothills staff including Neil 'Athanasius' Soveran-Charley. This talker would eventually become Surfers and be the first instance of the Elsewhere-Too [ewtoo] (named in honour of Burble's original talker that it was an extension of) code that almost all modern talkers are derived from. The code was released a couple of years later and soon talkers sprung up all over the internet, the most popular one being an American site called Resort.
Now the source code was in the public domain, spods the world over began tinkering with it, adding code that supported colours, games and all manner of other features. Two of the more popular derived-codes are Sensi-Summink and PGPlus, although every talker has in-house coders, and therefore its own unique style.
How to Get Onto a Talker
It is possible to get onto a talker using your operating system's ordinary telnet program, but this is not advised, as you will be typing into the area where people are speaking, and it quickly gets very confusing. It is recommended to connect using a MUD client. Use TinyFugue if you have access to a UNIX system, or SimpleMU is a good choice for Windows users.
Next, choose your talker from the list at Grim's. Good starting places, if you can't decide, are:
- Surfers - surfers.org 4242
- Foothills - foothills.tk 2010
- Resort - resort.org 2323
- Snowplains - snowplains.org 3456
Just enter the address and port in the configuration for your client, connect and answer the questions the talker asks you. Some friendly spods will soon welcome you into their world.
- ewtoo.org has some more history, and a downloads page if you want to host your own talker.
- Grim's is an excellent list of all the talkers that are up and running at the moment.