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product.” And when MSN Messenger shuts down Friday in China, the last place where the service still operated, it will mark the conclusive end of the mainstream chatroom era.Sure, we have Rooms now — but Rooms, despite its branding and anonymous discussion groups, has little in common with the chatrooms of yore.The Web didn’t achieve anything like mainstream usage until well into the ‘90s; before then, the people sitting through many, many minutes of dial-up bleeps and buzzes, all to talk to pseudonymous strangers, were a very particular breed: hobbyists and early adopters and other technophilic types, each drawn to this peculiar experiment in part because it was peculiar, and its results were far from known.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.“It’s certainly the illusion of intimacy — the instant gratification of human contact without responsibility or consequences or actual involvement …[But] the danger is that going online instead of going into the real world ultimately turns conversation into a spectator sport.” For users, of course, this kind of outsider bemusement was half the motivation.

) it seems to lack that critical quality that made early AIM, Yahoo Messenger and MSN fun: the edge of quirkiness, transgression and inventiveness.

The feeling that this was a new and semi-lawless space, that unexpected things could happen.

Just look at the earliest, successful forerunner to online chat — a program that academics invented, almost by accident, long before the birth of the World Wide Web.

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

Services like MSN and AOL (which bought Compuserve in 1998) made the chat function available to millions of Americans, packaging it in dial-up subscriptions that users purchased first by the hour, and later by the month.