You bet! It's called "Internet Relay Chat" (IRC) and it goes on twenty-four hours a day.
IRC is like real-time email. Whenever anyone in an IRC chat sends a message it appears on each participant's computer screen.
Chatting takes place in "channels." The number of people using a channel can range from two to a dozen or more. There are channels devoted to many specific subjects and to nothing in particular. Just as with email and newsgroups, chat messages can be accompanied by graphics and other types of file attachments.
There are several chat programs for both Macs and PCs. The most popular Mac program is Ircle, and the standout in the PC world is Mirc. You can download Ircle or download Mirc from the Internet. Both are shareware, so plan on paying a small registration fee if you become a regular user of either program.
First, bear in mind that mastering an IRC program is no more difficult or complicated than, for example, playing championship bridge or learning Italian. Well, actually, it isn't even that difficult, but becoming an IRC expert does require a little practice and a willingness to learn some basic commands.
Internet chatting is made possible by IRC "servers" which are located all around the world. IRC servers are linked into networks, and two of the largest of these are EFnet and DalNet. The details will differ depending on which program you're using, but here's a summary of the steps involved in logging on to an IRC server:
First, open your connection to PhoneTech in the usual way, and then run your IRC program. If you haven't registered your IRC program, you'll need to click past the reminder screen(s). You then need to pick an IRC server and choose a nickname. The Mirc program automatically brings up a screen which lets you do these things. In Ircle, choose "Preferences" under the File menu and then choose "Startup."
Type in the nickname of your choice. This is the name by which you will be known to other chatters. Then select an IRC server. It doesn't make a lot of difference which one you pick, but stick to servers in the U.S.
Next, try connecting to the server. Click the Connect button in Mirc, or choose File/Open Connection in Ircle. Then don't do anything. It often takes several seconds for the server to respond.
Eventually, you'll get connected - maybe! It's quite possible that the IRC server you picked will be filled to capacity with happy chatters and won't have any room for you. In that case, you'll see a message like "ERROR Closing Link (no more connections)" or "Unable To Connect To IRC Server," and you'll have to go back and choose another server from the list. Keep trying and eventually you'll find one which will accept your connection.
After you establish a connection, you'll see a long message scrolling by. This is the IRC server informing you of the terms and conditions for its use. At this point, the server may inform you that someone is already using the nickname you chose. With thousands of people using IRC, this happens quite often. You will then have a minute or so to change your nickname by typing /nick newnick and pressing ENTER. Try adding the numeral "2" to your old nick - "sneezy2" instead of "sneezy," for example.
The next step is to pick a channel to chat in. Each of the server's channels (which can number in the hundreds) has a unique name, usually beginning with the # symbol. You can get a list of channels by typing /list and pressing ENTER, but this may not be very helpful. The list is long and the channel names aren't always too informative.
A good choice for your first venture into IRC would be the #irchelp channel. Here you'll find people ready and willing to answer your questions. You should also take a look at Yahoo's list of IRC channels.
To join a channel, type /join followed by a space and the channel name (for example, /join #irchelp) and press ENTER. Once you're in a channel you'll see a list of the other people who are already there. Type "hello everyone" or something similar and press ENTER. The other chatters will usually acknowledge your presence, and you're off and chatting.
To change channels, first use /leave or /part oldchannel to leave the current channel, and then use /join newchannel to join the new channel.
Talking to several people at once can be pretty confusing, both in real life and on the Internet. If you'd like to establish a private chat with someone in the channel, try sending them a DCC (Direct Client to Client) request. If they accept, you'll be able to chat with them one-on-one, which your humble Webmaster finds to be a much more comfortable arrangement. You may sometimes receive DCC requests from other chatters.
Yes, sort of.
There are several Web sites which let you chat without using IRC at all, like the Lava Lounge and the Blues Traveler's Blue Lamp Tavern. Unfortunately, this method tends to suffer from slow screen refresh rates - that is, you don't see what people have typed as quickly as you do when using real IRC software, which makes for a rather herky-jerky conversation.
A better approach is to use one of several plug-ins or helper applications which work with your Web browser. A good one is Global Chat from Quarterdeck Corporation. After installing this program as a helper app, you can simply click on a chat link in a Web page and immediately join that channel for live chatting.
Thanks and a tip of the hat to Mark Carman for help with Mirc and to Tom Lacey for help with Ircle!