If you're having a hard time finding a clean, comfortable place to chat with family and friends online, one start-up company says it has a solution.
PeopleLink introduced a software program today, also called PeopleLink, that lets Net surfers to set up real-time conferences on the Net without being intruded upon by strangers. Dubbing the software a form of "interactive messaging," the company says PeopleLink offers users the privacy of email with the interactivity of a chat room.
"Chat is kind of like a bar--anyone can come in," said chief executive Steve Glenn. "Conversation tends to skew towards the sexual. Guys tend to act like teens. With interactive messaging, it's more like a one-on-one call or a small dinner party. It's invited, intimate, and secure."
Indeed, other companies are beginning to offer an alternative to the raciness of many online chat rooms. America Online provides its subscribers with a feature known as "buddy lists" for chatting with friends, while Disney may add a "panic" button to chats in its upcoming online service that will alert moderators to rude or offensive behavior.
Although experts believe email by far outranks chat as the preferred means of communication on the Net, chat services are gaining popularity as way of providing a live discussion forum for people with similar interests. But the anything-goes atmosphere of many chat rooms could slow its acceptance with a mainstream audience. A recent survey of 471 Netizens by Cyberdialog said that 65 percent of respondents had encountered foul language and 58 percent had seen sexual or offensive remarks in chat rooms.
PeopleLink attempts to minimize those situations, or at least limit them to those encounters between consenting participants. The software allows users to set up lists of accepted chat partners. As soon as a user logs onto the Net, his or her partners will be notified and a chat can ensue.
PeopleLink is in beta testing and runs on Windows 95, 3.1, and the Macintosh operating system. The company supports itself by selling advertisements on chat areas; the software is otherwise free to end users. AT&T has already signed on as a sponsor, the company added.
Although it may provide a friendly forum for chat, PeopleLink's software doesn't guarantee that conversations will rise above the banal. "This serves as a virtual water cooler," Glenn said. "I can see my friend, and say, 'You the man!' and he'll sa,y 'No, you the man!' and we're done."