Are chat rooms public places?

What are you really doing when you close a lot of hugely popular chat rooms? Looking for a real world analogy: are you just shutting the high maintenance, low profit caf? full of dodgy looking old geezers and annoying kids that you’ve been itching to kick out for years or are you doing something a bit more socially significant? Are you actually closing down a public place, with all the tricky public-private argy bargy that kind of action produces?

Chat rooms remind me of the kind of semi-public places that make up our City centres these days ? it might look like a Plaza, but it’s actually a privately owned chunk of high value real estate made available for nice, polite working citizens to eat their sandwiches in but definitely closed to smelly types and troublemakers.

No one will question Microsoft’s perfect right to close their chat rooms ? although I think this move is more about limiting legal liability than protecting kids ? but I wonder if there’s a larger corporate responsibility thing going on here. Should we expect owners of big chunks of high traffic online real estate like Microsoft to build and police safer online public spaces or is it OK for them to just duck out and leave it to the, presumably, shrinking band of chat specialists and marginal players who don’t really care what happens in their rooms?

Back in the real world, we routinely expect property developers to make provision for accessible and safe public spaces when we allow them to build in our cities. Should we expect the same kind of civic engagement from Microsoft, Yahoo et al? Or maybe we should bite the bullet and empower an already publicly-owned institution like the Beeb to provide these spaces for us.


  1. The bad thing about chatrooms is the effect of being completely anonymous. The feeling that there is absolutely no way to trace back a person whatsoever conveys a sick feeling of power. Therefore, I agree with Microsoft to close down chatrooms and hope that others will follow.

  2. Your analogy between social and physical spaces is interesting.

    Isn’t this a key difference though: physical space (“a privately owned chunk of high value real estate”) is finite, which means we sometimes want to ration/regulate how it gets used.

    On the other hand, chat operates in an infinite and ever mutating space; no unique public space has been occupied/destroyed/monopolized by the builder/operator of a piece of social software.

    We didn’t “allow [Microsoft] to build in our cities,” Microsoft created its own city on a dimension that didn’t displace any other property owners. Now, with Microsoft gone, almost anyone can greenfield a chat room, so if there is a real social need and no commercial incentives for an operator, a foundation or charity could fill the need. The entrance/exit of a player like Microsoft doesn’t irreparably harm the “space.” On the contrary, Microsoft should be lauded for helping to pioneer the idiom.

    But if chatrooms are a “public good” that needs to be subsidized/regulated, I guess the “old” telephone company is a good candidate for the job. Uggg.

    OK, I’m babbling and will stop. Anyway, your metaphor is a fun one.

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