“It’s certainly the illusion of intimacy — the instant gratification of human contact without responsibility or consequences or actual involvement …
[But] the danger is that going online instead of going into the real world ultimately turns conversation into a spectator sport.” For users, of course, this kind of outsider bemusement was half the motivation.
The Web didn’t achieve anything like mainstream usage until well into the ‘90s; before then, the people sitting through many, many minutes of dial-up bleeps and buzzes, all to talk to pseudonymous strangers, were a very particular breed: hobbyists and early adopters and other technophilic types, each drawn to this peculiar experiment in part because it was peculiar, and its results were far from known.
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“Chat, always burdened with a slightly seedy reputation …
is undergoing a major makeover,” enthused one 1997 trend piece in the Irish Times.
In some ways, in fact, chatrooms were experiencing a cultural shift similar to one much-discussed on Facebook today: a space that was once a frontier, was being standardized, monetized — colonized by moms.
And the places that remained on the fringes were categorically gross: full of spam and sludge and a/s/l-style solicitation, a far cry from the supportive communities of the late ‘80s.
If the Internet was an uncharted wilderness, however, the ‘90s were its Gold Rush.
Services like MSN and AOL (which bought Compuserve in 1998) made the chat function available to millions of Americans, packaging it in dial-up subscriptions that users purchased first by the hour, and later by the month.
In others, a form of radical, soul-baring honesty was fairly common; between the fake names, the small communities, and the hours of online contact, the idea of intimacy became “very seductive,” one user told Info World.
(Seductive enough that most mainstream coverage of chat at the time focused on a phenomenon dubbed “Compu Sex.”) “To say this typewritten “human contact” or “people typing in their thoughts” is the equivalent of genuine friendship or intimacy is something else,” wrote Vic Sussman, struggling to understand the very concept of online community for The Washington Post in 1986.
The feeling that this was a new and semi-lawless space, that unexpected things could happen.
Just look at the earliest, successful forerunner to online chat — a program that academics invented, almost by accident, long before the birth of the World Wide Web.
AOL’s Instant Messenger, perhaps the icon of the anonymous instant-messaging age, quietly killed off its chat rooms in 2010.