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Face to Face online
The Internet Relay Chat (IRC) -- a simple on-line chat mechanism that lets users join in real-time discussions over the Internet -- has evolved into an increasingly popular activity since its introduction in 1988. Nisar Keshvani hooks on and goes face-to-face with a host of netters.

*cyberbabe*: "Hey cyberhunk? Wanna cyber? Are you from au? Care to intro?"

*cyberhunk*: "Sure. Cool nick, btw did we chat yesterday? Like to id y'self?"

These lines may seem absurd or sound like code, but there is nothing conspiratorial about them. It is just ordinary folks chatting ... on the Internet.

The Internet Relay Chat (IRC) is the latest craze and the number of people logging on to "shoot the breeze" is phenomenal. Some popular chat sites have about 20,000 chatters hooked on-line.

As the number of chatters increases, more people meet, fall in love, marry, have children and go on to lead "normal" lives. Some reveal their deepest secrets and inner-most thoughts while others have cyber-sex.
"Cyber-sex" put simply, is sexual fantasy played out in a new-age electronic environment. In this new dimension, chatters "live out" their sexual fantasies and desires through typed words with a like-minded partner. Perhaps because they can share their thoughts and feelings with such ease, it allows them to feel close even before they meet in person.

Love at first link
The first time Margaret Hackett "cybered", she logged off mid communication. Slightly frightened, she was amazed at where her conversation with a fellow chatter was heading to.

"I never felt like that before. I was pouring out my soul," she said.

"We started getting quite intimate and that really scared me."

Hackett has two children. Cracks began surfacing in her marriage before she ventured on-line. She could not spend much time with her spouse as both worked shifts. Slowly she became closer with one particular virtual "chat-mate".

"I found that John and I could connect. It felt like love the moment I typed my first line to him. Till today I wonder if the IRC caused my split-up, but I guess it would have happened anyway," Hackett said.

"One day, we decided to exchange numbers and we started spending time together and enjoyed every minute of it. I have not signed official divorce papers yet, but that will happen soon. My kids love John and that's a relief."

How does this virtual world work?
Today, more than 150 countries have direct access to the Internet. There are an estimated 36 million Internet users worldwide (up from 19 million in 1996) spending an average of 5 hours a week on-line. eMarketer a one-stop resource for on-line Internet statistics projects global users will quadruple to 142 million by the year 2002.

With these astounding figures, more and more Internet users like Margaret are finding their way to IRC sites and they are fast becoming the most popular gathering spot on-line. What is the IRC, non-netters may wonder?

Unlike electronic mail, the IRC allows several chatters to let their fingers do the talking simultaneously. It consists of a series of real-time written discussions. IRCs run with a similar principle to the CB radio but instead of speaking, chatters type out their thoughts. Any number can play - and lots do.

Communication and response can happen almost instantaneously, just as in a real-life conversation, and gives it a sense of immediacy. However, unlike face-to-face conversations, you can log off when you are bored or exhausted with the click of a mouse. Even if the conversation gets intimate or personal, a log-off can be instant without fear of rejection or hurt feelings.

Anyone with an Internet account can enter and chat with those on-line. It works like a virtual cafe. All chatters have a nickname and are listed on the opening page. One can speak to everyone on the list or adjourn to a private room to continue a one-to-one conversation.

Virtual Sex, Lies and Cyberspace
With the IRC, chatters get to make new friends and take on a new identity with every log on. Many master the anonymous-posting programs that are proliferating and do not need to reveal their real names or location. They can be "virtually" untraceable.

Since chatters can not see each other. They can remain anonymous and do not have to bother about looks. Some cross over the gender barrier while others take on various personas.

One such chatter, S. Satya, 23, a Singaporean undergraduate who clocks an average of 30 hours a week on the IRC says he puts on different characters for kicks.

"I tried various nicknames and roles just to get a feel of what I could do. I played a young student, a 30-year-old professional, a religious fanatic and a young single woman of 20," Satya said.

"You'd think this world is full of sex-crazed perverts. I met lots of them, especially when I posed as a 20-year-old single woman. I just have to play along and I get offers to cyber-sex."

It was during one of these sessions that he met his "soul-mate" who toyed with his feelings and took him on a "cyber-ride".

"At one IRC site. I met Rita, an undergrad from Vietnam. We clicked immediately and I spent hours on the phone with her and was supposed to fly down to meet her parents. I was really serious about her," he said.

"She was poor so I sent her some money and I felt so much in love with her. It was only later when I was chatting with another guy when he warned me a girl from Saigon was fooling around and tricking guys into sending her money. That is when I realised I was taken for a ride. I confronted her and it turned out to be true. I was shattered."

However, Satya says he will not let this experience deter him from logging on. But he vows to be more careful next time.

From Cyber to Real World
For a group of youngsters in Sydney, the IRC has brought them together with cyber-friends who share their interest in comics. The group met on-line at the SOL Chat-O-Rama site.

John Camp, a member of this group, is thankful he discovered the group by chance.

"It all started with my interest in DC Comics. I frequented Chat-O-Rama and accidentally found a small group who shared my passion for comics. We started exchanging information, tips and talked comics over the Net," said John.

"After a while, we started meeting to share what we know and buy and sell comics. Now we inform each other in advance of meetings on the IRC or if we plan to hang out in the City."

Psychologist Quah Saw Han, who conducted a study of on-line addiction, said it was comparable to any compulsive disorder like gambling or alcoholism. Chatting could be just as dangerous and appealed because chatters enjoyed a temporary escape from reality or living out their fantasy, she said.

"The ritual of pursuing secret desires from behind a facade is as old as the masquerade. But perhaps because it has never been so easy, the compulsion has never seemed so strong," she said.

"Many chatters develop images and personalities of the people they chat with in their mind. Chatting fills this gap between reality and what chatters want to believe is true. It cushions the fantasies that are sometimes missing in their lives.

"It is not always detrimental, but the important thing is control. And if chatters realise when things are getting out of hand and that should be the time to pull the plug. Only then can it be manageable and controllable."

On-line Technical and Customer Support
From being solely a communication interface, these days the IRC has evolved into an on-line technical support site for business. Growing numbers of companies are taking advantage of its speed to set up on-line support groups. One such company, the Windows User Group Network (WUGNET), launched their Webmaster Forum and used Compuserve's ConferenceRoom.

ConferenceRoom and sites like it are a cost-effective and easy-to-use business solution for distance learning, virtual meetings and client support. It is an ideal environment to chat with other professionals and friends. It gives surfers expert technical support and the opportunity to discuss the WUGNET products with its on-line staff and forum members.

Howard Sobel, executive director of WUGNET, a California based software company specializing in Windows NT-based Internet server solutions, finds this development exciting for his business.

"The Webmaster Forum provides an opportunity for end-users to get a leg up on the latest and greatest technology," said Sobel. "ConferenceRoom is a great example of a technology that empowers end-users and corporations alike through the integration of web and chat. Conference Room is the application to bring chat functionality to the Web."

Stick to the rules or get banned
Though the IRC may seem like a free-for-all and say-what-you-please site, there are rules that govern chatters or they run the risk of being banned or kicked out of the chat. In fact, these sites are well-organized and have a group of "operators" who manage them.

These operators are surfers who frequent the site to ensure chatters do not become offensive, swear at each other or argue. Though they do not get personally involved in the fracas, they have the authority to ban a chatter from the web site or temporarily kick them out of the chat. Generally chatters are discouraged from using offensive, abusive language and spamming or flooding other chatters with mail or messages.

Operator Rina Baharuddin, who has dabbled with the IRC since she first hooked on to the Net, has had her share of abusive chatters. "They seem to me a frustrated bunch. I don't understand why they need to be abusive or swear. But I have to be objective and kick chatters who disobey the rules out," she said.

Operators like Rina will continue to govern and there will be many like Margaret, Suresh or John chatting as long as the numbers getting on-line keep increasing and new IRC sites are developed. They will simply be - just ordinary folks having a good time chatting ... on the Internet.

*cyberbabe*: "hunk, I gotta go. My husband will be home in an hour and I have to cook. You here tomorrow? *hugs*"

*cyberhunk*: "Ow! Just when we were getting to know each other. I'll be here again at 3pm tomorrow. Is that a date? I'll be thinking of you tonight. *double hugs*"

     

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