AOL’s Longest-Running Employee on the History of AOL Chat Rooms

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Last month, Sean Parker of Napster fame launched Airtime.

Amid the hoopla of the launch — attended, for some reason, by Jimmy Fallon and Snoop Dogg — Parker told an anecdote about meeting his business partner, Shawn Fanning, 15 years ago in a chat room, saying, “There’s something exciting about bringing spontaneity to the Internet. All of your  interactions online are constrained by the people you already know.”

(MORE: Chatroulette 2.0? Napster Founders Launch Airtime Video Chat)

So far, Airtime hasn’t exactly been a hit. Apparently people don’t feel constrained by interacting with the people they know — they feel comforted by it. But what, exactly, did happen to the chat rooms Parker so fondly remembers?

I talked with Joe Schober, the longest-running employee at AOL and its current chief architect.

His relationship with the company started in 1988, before it was America Online. Back then it was called AppleLink, a project commissioned by Apple Computer and a company called Quantum Computer Services to connect Apple II and Macintosh computers.

The beta test was dubbed “Samuel” and for Schober, a teenage fan of BBSes (bulletin board systems), it was an intriguing opportunity. He recalls a “little frontier town” where you could initially recognize almost every screen name you came across. When the main chat room filled to capacity, necessitating the creation of Lobby 2, the community celebrated.

It only took 23 people to fill a chat room.

“I know for myself, personally, I found it fascinating,” says Schober. “The BBS world, it tended to be a one-line experience — you were the sole user of the service, you could send email, you could leave messages, but it wasn’t interactive in real-time in the same way. So the experience of going into a chat room and getting a response a couple of seconds later from someone who was in the same chat room was just really cool.”

Slowly, the service grew, expanding to support DOS and eventually Windows. The chat product, called People Connection, had a variety of rooms for people interested in such topics as genealogy and strategy games. Schober remembers a ticker dubbed “Network News,” a kind of virtual community newsletter that would let people know when certain chat rooms had a special guest or were discussing certain topics.

Schober moved from beta tester to full-time employee in 1992, when the service — now officially called America Online — went public. The company was positioned perfectly for the onset of the Internet Age. Windows 3.1 was released, making personal computers both more affordable and easier to use. And, despite our memories of the slow-dialing modems of the ’90s, connecting to the World Wide Web was faster than ever at the time.

“In the ‘80s, if you had a 2400 baud modem you were pretty hot stuff,” says Schober. “2400 baud is painful. People talk about their cellphones being slow now; a slow cellphone might be 256k or 512k, so if you think about something being 100 times slower than that, it’s ridiculous. So you started getting to the 9600 and 14,400 baud modems that made the speeds a little more comfortable.”

Participation in chat rooms started to snowball; as more people used them, the variety of chat rooms increased, attracting even more people. Then, in 1996, America Online opened the floodgates by introducing a monthly flat rate instead of charging by the hour. For $19.95 a month, users could now linger in chat rooms for as long as they wanted.

The late ’90s, according to Schober, was when chat rooms hit their peak. Just how powerful was America Online during this time? Reggie Fairchild, product manager for AOL 4.0, shared this little story on Quora:

When we launched AOL 4.0 in 1998, AOL used ALL of the world-wide CD production for several weeks.  Think of that.  Not a single music CD or Microsoft CD was produced during those weeks.

It worked. People signed up in droves.

AOL’s subscriber base grew to 17 million in 1999. This is the era that many people, myself included, remember most vividly. As a gawky kid entering high school, chat rooms were a haven from the awkwardness of real human interaction. I’d use them to discuss punk bands like Operation Ivy with other teenagers, to play the chat room-equivalent of Dungeons & Dragons, and talk to what I very much hoped were actual girls.

Around 2000, however, I found myself drawn more to AOL Instant Messenger (AIM) than I did to AOL’s chat rooms. Launched in 1997, AIM became widespread once it was made available to non-subscribers in 1998.

(MORE: AOL’s Thoroughly Modern AIM)

Then in the 2000s, the rise of DSL and cable modems made paying AOL a monthly fee for Internet access seem increasingly unnecessary. Friendster launched in 2002, Myspace in 2003 and Facebook in 2004. Massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs) like World of Warcraft made gaming in chat rooms seem antiquated.

There were, in short, a lot more options for people who wanted to interact online. AOL’s walled garden was officially dismantled in 2006. Chat rooms were available to AIM users until 2010, when AOL announced, “Since usage of AIM Chat has declined significantly in recent months, our focus has moved to other products.”

Today, chat services such as Facebook Messenger and Google Talk (a.k.a. Gchat) are popular, but chat rooms as they existed in the 1990s are mostly a relic.

So, is the chat room dead? Schober doesn’t think so.

“I don’t think people have necessarily stopped using them — there are just different ways of expressing the same concept now,” says Schober. “Now people on Facebook will start a thread on someone’s Timeline and really start interacting with one another. It’s a different visual format, it’s organized differently, but its really the same concept we had around the chat room.”

Yes, that’s true, but to me the experience just feels different. That’s what Parker was getting at when he talked about the “spontaneity to the Internet” during the Airtime launch. In the ’90s, I constantly interacted with people known to me only by their screen names; today, I only interact that way in comments sections and on Twitter, and only occasionally.

That’s not necessarily a bad thing. I’m nostalgic for AOL chat rooms, but would I use them if the company brought them back? No. But that doesn’t mean some entrepreneur out there isn’t working on something that captures the same spirit, albeit without the same hegemony AOL enjoyed. In the meantime, I’ll have to settle for talking with strangers on Twitter. Anybody want to talk about punk bands from the late ’80s and early ’90s?

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34 comments
moller4444
moller4444

I had a 300 Baud modem I used on my Commodore 64 in 1985 that I would use to chat in a trivia game chat room on Q-Link, as it was called then.  Soooo slow. I would type in the answer to the trivia question, and my modem would send the answer after the moderator had given the answer already. Everyone else was using a 900 baud modem, that was lightening speed!! Lots of fun tho!!

DJD
DJD

I loved , from the right/ left and half a dozen other lounge. It was way better than IRC or comment forums like this. 23 people having a discussion about things everybody agreed were relevant to them. I had so many regulars that I got to know without ever meeting them. I believe the end of AOL chat was the end of AOL.

Formally W00Dagon of AOLchat 

DennyGreen
DennyGreen

I was a regular in the Authors Lounge for almost ten years...I miss those folks, Being that we didnt know each others real names for the most part, I have sadly lost contact with most all of them...

newbornnickumz
newbornnickumz

Was anyone here a regular in the PAF ? Pick A Fight chat room??? I was wildazznicky, hottazznicky, littlegavindol, nicole722 something, I just remember that I am trying to reunite with the regs! I have contact with Stree Monkey, there was I JaneDough I,Chicky, Prisontool/PrisonSex, Mental somthing... Rottingdeth, Bunny, theres more I gotta think Please email me if you know anything! lilnickumz@hotmail.com

JudiHorwitzCates
JudiHorwitzCates

I miss my old Prodigy chatroom of the 90's. It was like a get together every night and personalities really came though. I'm so thankful I had the experience.

EnigmaBabylon
EnigmaBabylon

I can't stand social networking. I only have a few real friends, and I don't like their friends. And if I wanted to talk to my friends I'd text their phone or visit them. Twitter/Facebook/G+ are basically an invitation to allow the unwashed masses into my walled garden.

Chat rooms are acceptable because it's usually easy to ignore people and allows you to run across strangers based on interests rather than personal acquaintences. While I do like interacting with people I know, I also dislike social networking (in the literal and not merely online sense). So if I want to talk to someone about a subject it's going to have to be in a semi-controlled environment organized around interests and intentions. For this the chatroom is unbeatable.

VenusAlexisDrob
VenusAlexisDrob

I hate twitter, facebook, myspace and a myriad of other useless so called chat services. They all stink!!!

JamesGillette
JamesGillette

i dont understand the article, aol chatrooms never went away,....... ive been chatting in them everyday since 19980--- they are still there,...... and people use them.........the article must be a fraud,.. because aol chat rooms never went away,.... i am in one right now as a matter of fact

Live Online Chat
Live Online Chat

I am the webmaster of www.liveonlinechat.net and I have seen a massive fall in chatters, 70% decrease since April 2012 and I know many other webmasters in this niche have seen the same thing happen to their chat sites. It may be the Google updates, but even before the updates, the chat rooms were less busy than before, but the homepage was at its busiest. I think people look at chat rooms for free dating, you get to meet strangers, whereas Facebook and AIM etc are only for people you know.

AWM1983
AWM1983

Ah the bad old days of AOL; where you couldn't have a conversation without randomly being disconnected. I spent more time in AOL chat rooms then I care to admit. I don't know if ICR still exists but  I haven't been in one of those rooms in a very long time either.  Everyone is connected to someone else on Facebook in some way. It lacks the anonymity and randomness that the old rooms offered.

joecassara
joecassara

Ugh. Once again, old media gets it all wrong. AOL chat rooms arguably started with their first service, QLINK, on the Commodore 64. That's where we got the moniker "People Connection". Also, "Quantum Computer Services" is America Online's former corporate name, not a third party, which the article (perhaps unintentionally?) intimates.

Devon Chambers
Devon Chambers

I genuinely miss those days of going to and meeting people in AOL chat rooms, kind of wish they were still around : /

Neesh
Neesh

turntable.fm has been a wonderful reintroduction to the simple chatroom concept for me. A room full of people listening to the same mp3 at the same time with a chatbox. I've been addicted for a year!

Scmami
Scmami

I don't think they're dead either.... But I liken them to forums, where I frequent daily and anonymously post...But on forums I am posting about specific topics so I guess that's different from when I was 16 and asking ASL?

Echo83
Echo83

Chat rooms are not dead the problem is depending on what service you use they are full of bots so the same user experience of years ago isn't the same as it was. 

ackeegrl
ackeegrl

@DennyGreen  Their screen names were also their aol email names..........so if you used dennygreen as your screen name, chances were it was attached to your aol email........send out emails to those names and see if you get responses.....I still have my email from back then.

SkyWriting
SkyWriting

@tarkeshwar It's not too bad, but with private chat so easy and multiple chats running, people don'y pay attention to the room much.   I think with slow connection modems it forced a narrow attention span.  It can never be duplicated in live time due to technology.

SkyWriting
SkyWriting

@EnigmaBabylon  I agree that nothing has replaced chatrooms with their limited membership so you can find people you like and expect them to hang out there.  It was much like any real world experience where people hang out for whatever reason and you could expect them to be there when they had spare time. 

VenusAlexisDrob
VenusAlexisDrob

@Devon Chambers , aol chatrooms are still around, they never went anywhere.

jimcmillan
jimcmillan

@Echo83 You have it right Echo.  The bots totally ruined the public chat rooms.  Then the middle easterners came in with snake writing which is nearly as bad as the bots.  I saw, and still see, public chat rooms on yahoo  nearly filled with bots. Such chat rooms are useless because of the constant bot babble.

tarkeshwar
tarkeshwar

@SkyWriting @tarkeshwar Thanks for checking out Chatimity! More than 30% of messages posted there are in public rooms. The reason has more to do with social and app dynamics. Directly messaging someone without knowing them, usually leads to other person not replying, flagging or blocking. Interacting first in a group setting acts like an ice breaker. Chatimity's Nice Point system - a way to encourage good behavior on the app - rewards public room conversations more than private ones.

We have found that chat rooms setting with some amount of behavior modulation is a good setting for meeting new people online, a use case which is not well addressed by current social networking sites.

EnigmaBabylon
EnigmaBabylon

@jimcmillan The issue is that the good part of chat is that it's random and topic-based, however, if you want that you can't have strong gate-keeping, which means it's easy for bots and babbling Pakis to get in.

Paltalk user-created rooms SOUNDS like a solution - and, indeed, they do get rid of the gibberish and bots pretty damn effectively - but this ends up meaning that you need an actual person in the room, and that person will tend to constrain the conversation in the same way Facebook would - to a set of people who basically agree.

SkyWriting
SkyWriting

@tarkeshwar @SkyWriting I agree that a self monitoring system works, and Chatimity did a good job of cutting down the garbage talk as well as any Bots.  My experience there agrees with comments by posters that few people are "IN" the room mentally.  Given the option of multiple IM's people spread themselves very thin and do multiple chats at on time.  It's like talking to somebody while they watch sports.