Chatters Quieting Down

Mainstream adoption of the Internet was built largely on the popularity of chat rooms, but the Pew Internet & American Life Project has found that interest in the medium has hit a plateau. According to the report, the number of Internet users who have participated in chat rooms has only grown a modest 21 percent between March 2000 and July 2002.

Mary Madden, author of the report and principal research specialist for Pew Internet & American Life Project, explains that the lack of interest in chat rooms is largely due to a tenured Internet population – including the “Tech Elite” – who prefer more focused online social interactions.

“The decline of chat is going to turn out to be an interesting relationship between a general trend of people gaining more experience and becoming more focused in their approach to Internet and searching and Internet tasks,” Madden explained.

While chat room attendance has slowed, other forms of online communication are used more frequently. Just 4 percent of those surveyed took part in a chat room on a typical day in the summer of 2002 (up by 1 million participants from 2000 to 5 million), compared to 11 percent who sent instant messages, and 46 percent who sent email.

“Having a sense of control is a growing trend online. The popularity of IM and sites like Friendster are evidence that users are exerting more control over their social interactions,” said Madden.

Madden also cites the influx of younger Internet users as a reason that chat rooms are losing popularity, as a growing number of teens infiltrate the rooms and become nuisances to legitimate chatters.

Chat rooms have also received negative media attention as being playrooms for predators, as child safety issues have come to the forefront. These problems helped spur Microsoft’s decision to close chat rooms in a number of countries and charge subscription fees for those that remained open.

The study breaks down the demographic profile of chat room participants: 28 percent of men had conversed online, compared to 22 percent of women. Also, 40 percent of English-speaking Hispanics chatted online, while 35 percent of African-Americans and 22 percent of white Internet users engaged in the activity.

Education and income are factors in whether users chat online or not. More than one-quarter (27 percent) of Internet users with high school educations reportedly used chat rooms, compared to 17 percent of college graduates; and 39 percent of users in households earning under $30,000 annually, compared to 19 percent of those in households with combined annual incomes of $75,000 or more.

Fast talkers were unaffected by connection speed, as the Pew report didn’t find a link between chat room activity and broadband vs. dial-up access.

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