Got Social?

SnapSession: Web based chat rooms

I’m not sure how many of you know about the web site http://www.go2web20.net but its a great site to visit to find out what is going on in the world of Web 2.0 applications. Its also a great place to go to find solutions to problems. I recently had a faculty member who was putting together a hybrid class and everything was working out except she wanted a place where she could interact with the students real time, without much difficulty, downloads, etc…I popped on to go2web20.net and found those two room, showed her how to find them herself, and she was off happy as a clam.

I decided to go back and kick the tires on both of them when I had a chance, and now I have the chance. I’d like to start by thanking all the folks who popped in to help test the chat rooms. I put notices out to my social networks vie Ping.fm and we got quite a few takers (thanks everyone!)

The two programs are http://www.chatmaker.com and http://www.tinychat.com. I’ll start off with Chat Maker because everyone agreed they liked TinyChat the best.

When you first get to the web page for Chatmaker the thing I liked about it (over TinyChat) was that you get to pick the name of the room, so you could customize the URL for whatever the reason is you are meeting. Unfortunately, for me, that is where the preferences overTinyChat end.

When I first got into the room my name was listed as “Laura”. This was easy enough to change, I just clicked on LAURA and changed it to my own name. I dropped a note to Ping.fm (which notifies all my social networks) that I had opened the room and a flood of “guests###” started showing up. Big dislike #1, you can sign in without selecting a name to sign in as. I asked all of the guests to identify themselves, but only a few did. We never did find out who the other people were or even how they found out about the room.

When you type a URL into the chat room, Chatmaker does not automatically change it to a hyperlink. You can enter the HTML for a URL, and it will show up as a hyperlink then, but that seemed to be the only HTML it accepted (thanks toMilos for checking that)

The other VERY noticeable difference between Chatmaker and TinyChat is that Chatmaker had a banner with adds on the top. This was very distracting and could. potentially, become embarrassing depending on what ads show up.

Since I’ve been spending more time saying what one did not have that the other did, perhaps it might be best just to move on to TinyChat.

TinyChat, like ChatMaker, is a no-frills chat room. It is very basic and VERY easy to set up. You point your web browser to http://www.tinychat.com and when the page opens you click CREATE ROOM. At this point it tells you your chat room is ready and gives you a URL. It also gives you an opportunity to notify Twitter,Facebook, and Myspace. Be forewarned, although I did not do this via the TinyChat integration, someone I know did and said it kept posting to his Twitter account while he was signed in and he found that a bit annoying. I posted the URL to Ping.fm, which notified all my social networks, so that did not happen to me.

At the bottom of that page is says “Ok, I’m ready to join my chat” and when you click on that, it asks you what nickname you want to use (it also gives you another chance to authenticate via Twitter, see warning above). To me, here is one of the major pluses over Chatmaker – at this point, it forces the guest to enter some type of name here and so you don’t get the huge backup of numbered “guests”. Yes, it is true, you have no way of knowing is “Jane” is really “Jane”, just because that is what she wrote in the name field. That said, it is far better to have achat room full of individually named people, no matter what names they have chosen, than to have a room full of “guest3894″, “guest934″, etc….

Once you enter your nickname and click GO, you are now in the chat room. In the main window is a list of those chatting and/or those entering/leaving the room. For example…

(13:49) ** Lucas joined the room
(13:49) Lucas: Much cleaner…
(13:49) ** mczart joined the room
(13:50) ** Milos joined the room
(13:50) AJ: hi everyone
(13:50) AJ: yeah – I like this one better
(13:50) AJ: no add
(13:50) Milos: http://www.tinychat.com/1ero6p
(13:50) mczart: I’m back
(13:50) AJ: http://www-sorry-afk.com
(13:50) AJ: and does html
(13:50) AJ: good

All the way to the right of the screen is a list of the “active users” with how many are signed in at the top. To the left of the users name is a symbol, most often the flag of the country the person is in. This information must be pulled from the IP address the guest is connecting through, since I hadn’t given the application any more information than my name. Those who have Twitter accounts, and came in via Twitter, have the Twitter “T” as their symbol. Those were the only two icons we saw, country flag and the Twitter “T”.

As you can see, the chat is time stamped, so you can see exactly when someone entered and exited and also how long the session was. There is an option at the very bottom of the web page window that allows you to turn this off.

Next to the “hide timestamps” click is a “download log” click. This did not work for us. All it did was download a ‘txt file which was empty. What I used the /txt file for was to copy/paste the chat it – so, in essence, I DID use that file for the log, albeit it did not work the way it was advertised.

Also at the bottom of the window is a way to share the chat room with the three social networks previously mentioned. I did test this, at least with Twitter and Facebook. Although I have a MySpace page, I really have no friends there so I didn’t test it out. With Twitter is posted a note saying “join me…..blah blah blah” and give a URL for the chatroom. For Facebook it used the colorful chat bubble logo they use, so it was interesting and potentially attractive to others in your network – an attention getter.

I did experience “chat lag” once or twice, which I didn’t see in ChatMaker. This could very well have been because I tested TinyChat MUCH longer than ChatMaker, so it may just not have happened during the ChatMaker test. It was not a very long delay, a few seconds, and it only happened two or three times, but if there is a conversation flow going on, a chat delayed for 3 seconds can move a comment out of the flow. Suffice it to say I did not really see this as a problem and it could easily have been a network thing instead of an application thing.

Unlike ChatMaker, there are NO ADS in TinyChat and that is one of the other big things I liked better. The ads in ChatMaker were distracting, visually, and could potentially be embarrassing depending on the content of the ad. The flip to this is that ChatMaker is generating revenue, we don’t know how TinyChat is generating revenue to keep the rooms open” and free”, so that might be a concern moving forward.

TinyChat converted the url to a hyperlink on its own, but it does not accept any HTML code. Chatmaker did accept a few HTML codes but it didn’t make the link automatically and I think that is much more important since even the average user could enter a URL from time to time but many morepeople would not know how to do that using HTML code.

At one point I had clicked on another tab to go answer an email and when someone entered my TinyChat room and posted something, the tab for that began to blink and let me know how many chats had been posted. So I was able to effectively multitask without having to babysit the chat room. This is particularly useful if one were to use this for office hours or some other reason where you would not need to be “in” the room at all times.

Lastly, it is possible to do private chats by clicking on the persons name from the active users list. It is not possible to chat with more than one privately at a time and you need to click that persons name again to switch out of private chat to get back to the main chat room. That persons name will appear in the start of your chat box, which is how you know you are private chatting, and the chat line is highlighted in the main chat window to let you know the whole room did not see it.

(13:53) AJ: and being able to pick the name of your room
(13:53) AJ: but the URL on this one is shorter
(13:53) enza ? AJ: are you seeing this private chat?
(13:53) mczart: both don’t show a contact for help with tech issues such as the download
(13:54) AJ ? enza: yeah, been playing with it a bit already. Effective
(13:54) mczart: unless it is meant not to have one
(13:54) AJ: free web 2.0 stuff often does not

It was a bit confusing at first but useful once I knew how it worked. I did not see an FAQ or Help section anyplace, so there would have been no way of knowing about this functionality.

Overall, TinyChat is a very good, lightweight chat room utility with many applications. If one is looking for an easy free tool to use, as long as this one is available, and another one does not come along, I can’t see why anyone would use ChatMaker over TinyChat.

More soon.

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