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Perspective: Geeks, goons and dangerous loons; Richard McComb went undercover with a showbiz handle to explore the chatroom phenomenon.

Byline: Richard McComb

If talk is cheap then chat must be the verbal equivalent of a currency devaluation.

There is chat everywhere. You can hear it in the car in the boorish form of 'zoo radio' while television quiz shows, day-time confessionals and local news broadcasts are littered with it.

For anyone who cannot get enough of this inane gossip and ribaldry -prisoners in the isolation wing, for example -there are internet chatrooms. They are the habitat of geeks, goons and dangerous loons.

I accused Microsoft of pulling off a cheap marketing stunt when it announced the imminent closure of its free access MSN chatrooms in the UK.

But maybe I was wrong. Maybe there is a point to chatrooms and shutting them is more than a PR gimmick -it could be a blow to freedom of speech.

I decided to challenge my preconceptions and go in search of a cyber buddy. I will never, ever, do it again.

Do not believe the IT boffins and the cider-drinking geology students who insist it is easy to 'open the door' to a chatroom. I initially gave up with MSN after repeatedly getting stuck in the Addicted to Britney Spears Support Group. I said a wistful goodbye to existing members Heather and Dana, wondering if we might have hit it off. I was slightly less sorry to see the back of Keith, who posted a picture of himself relaxing in his college room.

I decided to try a different internet provider and connected to Freeserve. It caters for net surfers with a liberal attitude to life.

To enter a chatroom, you need a nickname, a handle, like Rubber Duck in the film Convoy. ('Breaker One-Nine, this here's the Rubber Duck/You got a copy on me Pig-Pen?') But inventing a new persona is no easy task as the name is meant to lend a cloak of anonymity and an air of mystery.

After much soul-searching, I came up with Moonwalker. I typed it in but it was rejected. There already was a Moonwalker out there in cyberspace. Could it be Wacko himself, logging in from Neverland to trade chat about buying face scarves?

With Moonwalker ditched I was at a loss. Flashman, perhaps? It sounded a bit pervy.

Rifling through childhood inspirations I tried Pan's People. Rejected. Bohemian Rhapsody. Rejected. (I didn't even bother with Galileo.) I was suffering a chest cold, so I tried Bronchial J-Lo. And it worked.

Having gained entry, I feasted my eyes on the chatroom topics and soon realised it was not as bad as I had feared. In fact, it was worse, unless your idea of fun is talking to strangers in chatrooms called Bissexual Banter, English Gay Friends, Welsh Gay Friends and the admittedly mildly enticing Lesbian Cafe.

I decided to go back to MSN and resolved to get past the Addicted to Britney Spears Support Group. Do not ask me how I did it, but I managed to access the main menu, nearly.

The chatrooms offered the promise of potentially worthwhile discussion included City Chats, Music, Health and Romance.

Thinking I would get the stalkers' low down on the redevelopment of Birmingham's Bullring, I opted for City Chats. I then found I had to invent another silly nickname to gain access and resolved to butch it up. I tried Midnight Rambler but it was already taken, as was Black Dog and, alarmingly, Colin. With a final throw of the dice, I morphed into Bronchial J-Lo once more, and gained entry.

But before I could start chatting, I was requested to download some more technical guff and as I waited, and waited, and waited, watching the clock tick round on my computer, it hit me.

What was I doing? The in-built nerd alert sounded in my brain. I had so far wasted 37 minutes. I could have written a letter to my grandmother, read a few chapters of Bleak House or listened to the first side of Dark Side Of The Moon. I hit the exit button. Life is too short for chat. Bronchial J-Lo has left the internet.
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Title Annotation:Comment
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Oct 4, 2003
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