Here is a sample of live chat services available to anyone with access to the Internet. The list does not include the subscription online services -- Compuserve, America Online and Prodigy -- each of which have some version of live chat available to subscribers only.
Internet Relay Chat is among the oldest chat networks, with channels in 60 countries. It was started by Jarkko Oikarinen of Finland in 1988. Conversation can be lively and newsbreaking. But it, too, suffers from constant interruptions of the "what's go in' on" variety. Channel-switching is fairly easy.
Using IRC requires study. Recommended reading: "Instructions for Net Newbies and Download Dummies" at www.moc.kw/mirc, and "About IRC" at www.stlnet.com/ infodesk/FAQ/win95faq.htm#irc.
Features: You can write in color, send sound bites, see a list of who's online and check out their identities, send them private messages.
Glitches: Netsplits -- a failure of a server -- can make part of a channel's users suddenly invisible to the rest. Don't switch channels; wait for the network to heal itself.
To get there: Software developed by Khaled Mardam-Bey makes IRC easier to use and more accessible. It's called mIRC. You can download it at www.moc.kw/mirc/get.html, or www.mirc.co.uk/install.html. (It's shareware: free for 30 days and if you like it, you're supposed to send $15 to keep using it.)
NandO.net Sports Chat
Started by The (Raleigh) News & Observer's online newspaper, the NandO Times, NandO sports chat offers rooms for general chat and each major league sport. Chatters often depart from the room's theme. Disagreements -- usually friendly -- between rival f ans are common.
Features: Very easy entry with no software or registration required. You can attach photos, drawings, even spinning artwork to your nickname. On entering you download the past hour's discussion. To see the discussion scroll by, you have to keep hitting the chat button.
Glitches: Each hour the server dumps the chat record. Someone usually gets "caught in the loop" -- the victim cannot see anything scrolling by, but everyone else can still see the victim's postings, which often repeat over and over. To get out, hit the change button.
To get there: Go to www.nando.net/xwebchat/chat.html and start posting.
With Time Warner and Softbank as lead investors and a number of former Intel executives joining the operation, The Palace may be one of the most heavily backed live chat sites. It has 500,000 user downloads and more than 1,000 server sites. It caters t o surfers' penchant for interesting graphics and customized chat rooms. But if you're looking for deep content, you may not find it in an environment where everyone's words pop up in comic balloons.
Features: Members can create their own avatar, or cartoon icon, and even design their own chat room. The screen shows the avatars interacting inside a virtual room with props and furniture. Guests are represented as smile icons, but even those can be c ustomized with clothing, sunglasses, props such as a violin or beer mug. The avatars can move around. Text appears in balloons over the avatar, and disappears fairly quickly.
Glitches: Lags -- when your screen appears to freeze and nothing moves -- can last a few seconds or two hours, says a seasoned chatter. This source also complains of "prop drops," when hours of customizing a prop are lost when the file disappears.
To get there: You can download "guest" software and try The Palace for free at www.thepalace.com. To get at all the goodies, you must pay a $25 registration fee.
Yahoo, best known as an Internet search engine, recently added a chat. Registration is free and you can give as much or as little information about yourself as you like. The page layout is user friendly and entry is easy.
Features: Allows multiple identities, offers several topical channels. Two "moonlight rooms" -- with links to "the pick-up bar" and private chat rooms -- separate the "romance cruisers" from those who want non-sexual discussion.
Glitches: None apparent in the brief time it's been up.
To get there: chat.yahoo.com/, a short download and free registration.