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PLATO had been designed for classroom use; according to its creators’ original plans, “communication between people would play [only] an incidental role.” But as more people signed on to the community, its participants began to notice something striking: In the freewheeling, pseudonymous realm of PLATO, people began to form highly personal, social connections that had nothing to do with academics. “People met and got acquainted in Talkomatic, and carried on romances via “term-talk” and Personal Notes,” one of its creators, David Woolley, wrote in his 1994 history of the program. Many people traveled to Urbana to see the lab and meet those of us who worked there …

Over the years, PLATO has affected many lives in profound ways.” Of course, PLATO could only reach so many people.

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.

Users spent more than a million hours chatting each day.

You never knew quite what, or who, you would find in a Compuserve chat — or, later, a chat on AOL (c. AOL’s chief architect and longest-serving employee, Joe Schober, once described the earliest AOL chatrooms as “little frontier towns”: small and unpolished, perhaps, but pioneering — like a spark in the big Internet void.

If the Internet was an uncharted wilderness, however, the ‘90s were its Gold Rush.

The rooms had become a favored hangout not only of teenagers and technophiles, but of stay-at-home moms. ” one frequent chat-er joked in 1996.) And companies that had previously eschewed their own stand-alone chat services, such as Yahoo and MSN, were beginning to offer their own.

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.

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