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And despite the panicked testimony of then-senator Herb Kohl just two years prior (“Most Americans don’t know what it is out there on the Internet,” he told a Senate committee, “and if they did they would be shocked”), the influx of new users was helping chatrooms shed their previously shady, transgressive image.“Chat, always burdened with a slightly seedy reputation …) it seems to lack that critical quality that made early AIM, Yahoo Messenger and MSN fun: the edge of quirkiness, transgression and inventiveness.The feeling that this was a new and semi-lawless space, that unexpected things could happen.

In some ways, in fact, chatrooms were experiencing a cultural shift similar to one much-discussed on Facebook today: a space that was once a frontier, was being standardized, monetized — colonized by moms.(Seductive enough that most mainstream coverage of chat at the time focused on a phenomenon dubbed “Compu Sex.”) “To say this typewritten “human contact” or “people typing in their thoughts” is the equivalent of genuine friendship or intimacy is something else,” wrote Vic Sussman, struggling to understand the very concept of online community for The Washington Post in 1986.“It’s certainly the illusion of intimacy — the instant gratification of human contact without responsibility or consequences or actual involvement …Services like MSN and AOL (which bought Compuserve in 1998) made the chat function available to millions of Americans, packaging it in dial-up subscriptions that users purchased first by the hour, and later by the month.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.

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