> History Repeated: A Random Post On Chat Room Protection….

History Repeated: A Random Post On Chat Room Protection….

Posted on Saturday, February 20, 2010 | No Comments

In the mid to late 1990’s, just as the Internet was really starting to take off and enter people’s homes a lot of the major Internet Service Providers (ISPs), were keen to feature some sort of “Chat” facility. 


Of the major ISPs at the time, I have memories of AOL UK featuring an extensive chat room facility, catered and provided for just about every possible demographic available to encourage Internet users to socialise and communicate with one another – which is possibly the greatest ever benefit to this World Wide Communication platform.


Other major players on the Internet scene were also in on the “chat room”; Yahoo!, Microsoft, CompuServe, AOL, etc.  These chat communities grew and grew and were a bit draw to Internet users, but then something happened, chat rooms were no longer considered safe.  Why?  Because the main inhabitants of chat rooms were teenagers and kids – which made them prime territory for the unsavoury folk of this world to have an open communication with their unsuspecting and naive prey. 


Being able to hid behind a screen and be anyone you could ever want to be is a powerful thing and also a dangerous weapon in the wrong hands; pretend to be someone your not, with someone who is willing to believe and they will follow.  At some point, the big players all saw the tipping point and decided that enough was enough and those chat rooms would be closed for the “safety of our children”.  A bold and noble move from the great and good of the Internet.


Those online communities that had grown up along side the users of those ISPs were quickly wiped out, leaving them with no where to go.  Instead these Internet companies released Instant Messaging tools to replace the open “chat room”, forcing users to exchange an email address before they were able to communicate – creating a more closed off chat system, allowing only those you trusted most to communicate with you.


For the past 10 years or so, IM messaging seemed to be working, SMS text messaging was added to mobile phones – but more recently a whole new technology generation of technology focused on “Social Internet” has taken over.  Facebook being the biggest key player in this arena today. 


It was always kind of inevitable that allowing “friends” to communicate in real time on the web was to make a come back and Facebook did add that functionality onto their website – continuing the theme of a closed system, allowing only those most trusted to enter your ‘online space’.


Until a few weeks ago I’d never thought about chat room, but I started to see the same site over and over again – www.chatroulette.com – a site that allows anyone to enter, click a button to start and then be paired up randomly with a complete stranger to chat, if you find you then have nothing in common, you press a button and the next  chatter appears on your screen, totally by random. 


Initially I was intrigued; a new twist on bring people who wouldn’t normally be thrust together to chat to see what happens on a social level, allowing the mind to be expanded and new worlds opened up right before your eyes – especially as chatroulette spins the chat room into something more, as it shows your webcam image!


Spend any more than an hour on this site however and you can quickly see the problem – the users are a mixed bag and tend to not use the site in the spirit it was intended.  It should be tagged with “NSFW”.  But what struck me as I used it was the amount of teenagers and younger people who use the site right alongside those of an older generation, and those who the ISPs were protecting kids from 10 years ago.


Its not just ChatRoulette that have re-introduced the random chat room experience though; TinyChat have launched their own product for group/communities to come together and www.PopJam.com have brought Facebook users together randomly – effectively opening up their closed chat/IM feature. 


History repeating anyone?  Its only a matter of time before chat rooms are splashed across the news once more and the dangers of the Internet being printed across every newspaper headline when the next unsuspecting child ends up chatting with the wrong person.


The past 10 years, social networking has really made big changes to its image online and finally got a large population using services such as MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, FourSquare, GoWalla, etc, but doubt around the use of these services could come back quicker than anyone anticipated if these sites don’t change to protect those that need protecting.


Trust me, I fear its only a matter of time before something unfortunate happens in this online space….I hope I’m wrong. 

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