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The Independent Culture
If you want to "talk" to people in real time over the Internet, you need to get to grips with Internet Relay Chat (IRC). You "talk" by typing in what you want to say; it's like having an e-mail conversation without having to wait for a reply.

Sometimes you will need to download software in order to participate but, increasingly, you can start chatting as soon as you reach the chat zone on most websites.

Some chats are like virtual parties; people join in from all over the world just to gossip. Others are more serious. If you have a passion for something and want to talk to like-minded souls about it, you are bound to find an IRC place that fits the bill.

So how do you start chatting, and how do you find the perfect chat experience?

A popular place to start is Yahoo! Chat. Go to http:// www.yahoo.com and click on the Yahoo! Chat icon on the top right of your screen. You will need to download software to join in, but you are quickly guided through the process step by step. Once you have registered, use the in- built search engine to find a chat.

It will be clear where to type in your "handle", or name, your message, and so on. Some chat rooms are full of people with little or no experience of IRC, so their messages may make sense at a glance. But eventually you will come across some strange language. It is OK to ask what people mean, but there are a few listed below to help you.

A couple of tips: cyberspace is still subject to time zones, so some chat lines may well be quiet when everyone in the States is asleep. And be wary of giving out your real name or e-mail address online, no matter how friendly the conversation. In fact, choose a gender-neutral "handle". Many women surf chat rooms as "virtual men"; they get less hassle that way, and the reaction to your virtual male character can be fascinating.

IRC can be addictive, if you find a chat room where you can talk regularly to people around the world on subjects you are obsessive about. Online friends are great. Just don't let them replace those you have IRL (in real life)!

Frequently used online jargon

LOL - laughing out loud

IMHO - in my humble opinion

IMNSHO - in my not so humble opinion

IOW - in other words

- big grin

BRB - be right back

:-) - happy/smiling

:-( - sad/frowning

{{ }} - hug

:-& - tongue-tied