But at the time, Talkomatic was something of a revelation.PLATO had been designed for classroom use; according to its creators’ original plans, “communication between people would play [only] an incidental role.” But as more people signed on to the community, its participants began to notice something striking: In the freewheeling, pseudonymous realm of PLATO, people began to form highly personal, social connections that had nothing to do with academics. “People met and got acquainted in Talkomatic, and carried on romances via “term-talk” and Personal Notes,” one of its creators, David Woolley, wrote in his 1994 history of the program. Many people traveled to Urbana to see the lab and meet those of us who worked there …And like other modern attempts to reincarnate the ‘90s chat room (Airtime, anyone?) it seems to lack that critical quality that made early AIM, Yahoo Messenger and MSN fun: the edge of quirkiness, transgression and inventiveness.“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 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.
But in 1980, Compu Serve — one of the earliest commercial Internet services — would release its own take on the chat concept, allowing more than 123,000 to sign on nightly under screennames like “Mike” and “Silver.” (Both names are, incidentally, critical to chat room history: They were, on Valentine’s Day 1983, one of the first couples to marry as a result of online chat.) Even though Compu Serve’s “CB Simulator” was a commercial service, it shared something of the pioneering quirkiness of ye Talkomatic chats of old.
“Chat, always burdened with a slightly seedy reputation …
is undergoing a major makeover,” enthused one 1997 trend piece in the Irish Times.
The CB stands for citizens band radio — a relative of ham — and originally operated in similar ways, borrowing from radio’s lingo and channel system.
In one early “channel,” described by Info World in 1984, users did nothing but speak Old English and roleplay as kings and maidens.