Online chat offers friends, company

The language of chat rooms-chat speak-is quick and efficient, a blend of acronyms, technology hooked on phonics and cutesy pictures. It’s designed to be exclusive, separating out the cyberhip from the Luddites. And being hip was never so easy.

Anyone can be part of the chat clique regardless of gender, size, income, social status, cultural differences, intellect and-hallelujah-age. It’s time for the rest of the world to revisit the myth that everyone over the age of 50 has a VCR permanently set to blink at 12:00.

According to SeniorNet, a nonprofit organization of computer-using mature adults, 28 per cent of those 50-plus who have computers use an online service regularly. These online services include e-mail, investment services and chat rooms.

And chat rooms, according to Argyle, a 68-year-old woman who regularly chats online, “are the best way to make new friends all over the world. I have former students in Japan and Switzerland, and this is the way we keep in touch.” In fact, Argyle’s grandson originally set her up on the Internet and showed her around chat rooms so the two of them could speak easily-and cheaply — when he left the province for university.&t;p>

Online conversation
A chat is nothing more than an online conversation between two or more people signed on to the Internet at the same time. Early chat rooms were clunky methods of less-than-real-time communication, requiring frequent reloads to get new messages.

Today, chats are as flashy as any other Internet service, with multiple conversations displayed on the screen almost as quickly as they can be typed. If you’re hooked up to the Internet, these services are free and can put you within a few keystrokes of anyone in the world.

There are three basic types of chat available, each with its own advantages and disadvantages.

Private chats:
Individual chats are available through services like MSN Messenger and ICQ, which allow chatters to directly contact friends and family and chat in private with one or more friends. Both ICQ and Messenger require a free download from the Internet, with easy-to-follow instructions.

Both services can be a bit tough to master as a newbie, particularly ICQ, which has many features that seem intimidating initially. If you’re new to the chat experience, ICQ may be overwhelming but once you’re navigating freely, you’ll enjoy the access and tools it gives you to communicate with friends.

Chat rooms
A good way to meet new people online is to surf specific websites that interest you and then seek out their chat rooms. The Community section of ( offers an excellent chat called The Back Fence.

The chat rooms are small and the people are friendly, encouraging newcomers to participate. It’s predominantly Canadian, although there are chatters from all over the world. Because our site is geared toward mature adults, its chat rooms are bothered less by troublemakers than other sites. The Back Fence runs specific forums during the week, including a chat devoted to newbies to help them be at ease in chat rooms.

Silent observer
For those too shy to participate in chat rooms, you can lurk and watch chat etiquette roll out on the screen. Users are immediately greeted by one of the hosts when they enter the chat room. Not all chat sites have hosts, but and MSN’s 60s Plus chat room do.

One MSN host, Aunt_Bea_Bot, says, “It’s the responsibility of the hosts to monitor the room for infractions of room rules.”

At MSN, the rules centre on showing a respect for others-no racist or sexist remarks, no asking age or gender. And no whispering without prior consent. Whispering involves moving to a private room with another person for a private discussion that other chat room participants aren’t privy to. Although whispering can be as innocent as a book discussion, it’s also frequently a means by which chat room participants can exchange explicit sexual fantasies.

Violations of the rules result in a stern warning from the host or immediate ejection from the room. Potentially offensive nicknames are booted on entrance. Even typing in all capital letters -for example, HI! I’M DEE-is considered shouting and universally rude. It’s also grounds for eviction.

At, the community does allow gender and age questions. But the rules of good manners and concern for fellow roomies prevail.

Regular conversation
One of the draws of chat is how closely it mirrors real-life conversation, from the profound to the ridiculous. There’s a great deal of small talk, of exchanging mundane chat about the weather, the kids, the grandkids and the garden. And that, says Skipper, a regular visitor to’s Back Fence, is part of its appeal.

“Internet chat was made for Canadians,” he says, bracketing his comment with smileys, which means he’s happy (see sidebar on emoticons). “:-) It gets so darn cold in the winter and it’s tempting to just huddle up indoors. With chat, you can sit down with a coffee and talk to someone soaking up the sun in Australia. :-)”

It’s important to remember that chat participants have the option of being absolutely honest or absolutely dishonest with you. But then, that’s a lot like real life, isn’t it? Will online chat ever replace the telephone as a means of long-distance communication?

“I still call my grandson on the phone,” says Argyle. “But it’s more out of habit. And besides, the phone company has come up with some really good deals.”