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The rooms had become a favored hangout not only of teenagers and technophiles, but of stay-at-home moms. ” one frequent chat-er joked in 1996.) And companies that had previously eschewed their own stand-alone chat services, such as Yahoo and MSN, were beginning to offer their own.

In 1993, shortly after the debut of AOL’s chatroom, the Associated Press reported, hilariously, on the “team of young, high-tech specialists” who were trying to get President Bill Clinton to host a town hall chat.

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.

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.

[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 Web didn’t achieve anything like mainstream usage until well into the ‘90s; before then, the people sitting through many, many minutes of dial-up bleeps and buzzes, all to talk to pseudonymous strangers, were a very particular breed: hobbyists and early adopters and other technophilic types, each drawn to this peculiar experiment in part because it was peculiar, and its results were far from known.

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