Our new streaming chat system has now been in operation for over four months and it's been quite a ride. Overall, I'd say it's been a rousing success, with up to 60 people chatting with one another pretty much 24 hours a day, seven days a week. And that's without advertising about its existence anywhere!
Needless to say, there have been some trials and tribulations. As a complete newbie to the world of chat, I really didn't have anything to go by. All I knew was that the BeSeen chat systems my former webmistress Dani had set up were closing down and I wanted to offer a quality chat system at the Dimensions site itself. The one I eventually found and installed turned out to be industrial strength and better than I ever expected. Installation was quite involved and I spent quite some time customizing the software for our needs, and then I had the help of some oldtime chatters in debugging the system. We got off to a great start only to suffer a horrible system crash that destroyed a ton of work and took the backups with it. That was demoralizing but we got back up relatively quickly, just to then run into a seemingly endless series of problems that slowed down our powerful new server to a crawl. We literally replaced everything and eventually found (I think) the culprit.
The second thing I learned over time was that chat is an incredibly complex system, and by that I do not only mean the software, but primarily the interpersonal dynamics. We quickly found that people who frequent chat are not necessarily the same as those who post on Dimensions' web boards. In fact, the overlap is relatively small. Apparently there are chat people and bulletin board people. The two are not mutually exclusive, but the chat crowd is definitely different. For example, while several prolific board posters have made a chat appearance or two, few became chat regulars. Chat is a totally different animal. I had no idea how different and how unique it is. In the beginning I was amused about some of the what seemed overly dramatic chat stories I heard. Later I learned that it was all true, and then some. I also had no idea just how addictive chat can be. And how time-consuming it can be to run a good chat system.
One thing that those who frequent the Dimensions Weight Chat system notice is that, by and large, it is a very safe and friendly place. Unlike the "Dimensions" chat rooms on the BeSeen system, the new system is managed and monitored and we set up rules and a general code of conduct. We also have operators who "patrol" the rooms to make sure no one is being harassed or abused. We take that very seriously. In the old BeSeen rooms, a single person could spoil the experience for everyone else. Not here. I chose a "Lord of the Ring" theme for the operators. My own handle is "Elrond," after the LOTR Elven lord who, together with his Council, protects a magic realm against invaders who seek to bring it down. "Eowyn," "Arwen," and "Galadriel" are ops that may at any given time patrol the rooms to make sure all is well (and often offer assistance to newbies). And for really tough assignments, there is the fiery "Balrog" who is sort of a grim bouncer with a soft heart. Note that none of the ops have access to private messages ("PMs") or system logs. We value the privacy of people who use our chat rooms.
All that said, I must admit that at times it's hard not to be overwhelmed by chat. For some people, chat is like a Star Trek holodeck. They practically live there. They go there for friendship and companionship and sometimes solace. Others go for the sheer entertainment value as there's almost always something interesting going on in chat. I am blown away by how seriously many chatters take the rooms. It's not just friendships that form there. People get engaged and some seem headed for marriage! That's pretty heady stuff considering that this is, after all, just a chat room system. Sometimes the whole thing reminds me of the game "The Sims."
Anyone new to chat will be totally unprepared for the politics that go on in chat rooms. There are ever shifting alliances, best friends, cliques, dramas, fights, and plenty of other stuff. Most TV shows are downright boring compared to what goes on in chat. That's both good and bad. For example, while most chatters are great people, some are not. Some come in and think this is a pickup bar, so they approach one woman after the other with lame pickup lines, trying to lure them away into Yahoo or AOL instant messenger systems. Some are worse, acting little different from the proverbial perverts in raincoats always looking for an opportunity to pounce a victim. The ops have little tolerance for those types. The occasional troll makes his or her ugly appearance. Underage chatters try to sneak in despite our strict legal-age-only policy. There's also a surprisingly large contingency of folks who pretend to be large women when in fact they're just guys on some odd kick. No tolerance for that either. I don't want for people to engage in conversations where they are simply being deceived. Gossip, too, is running rampant, and that's never good.
If the above sounds like a rather negative assessment, it really isn't. It's just the dynamics of this particular medium. And, for the most part, chat is great fun and an overwhelmingly positive experience. People make friends. People may reconnect with others after long periods of not socializing at all. People may gain confidence, may learn stuff they never considered. Some come out of their shells. Some do find true love. And it's just great to be in instant interactive contact with people from all over the world.
My vision for chat was to make it part of the overall Dimensions experience, the overall mission that I had in mind when I started the FA-SIG (which evolved into Dimensions) almost 20 years ago. That mission is to bring two very special groups together, fat people and those who like them. Both of those groups have their own issues, issues that can easily interfere with what could be a match made in heaven. It is Dimensions' goal to provide a forum where fat people and their admirers can get to know each other, find each other, and learn about each others' issues, fears, concerns, and dreams. And you already know how strongly I feel about the evils of size discrimination. I think chat can greatly contribute to that mission.
From a technical perspective, setting up the chat system has been quite a challenge. Chat takes up more of my time than any other part of the huge Dimensions site. It takes almost constant attention and there are a myriad things that can and will go wrong.
As I look back over these first six months or so of chat I find myself quite pleased, but there are also things I haven't gotten to yet. For example, early on I envisioned special discussions taking place in chat. For example, every week there could be a different topic. The system even allows for by-invitation-only sessions, or for rooms that require different levels of membership. Primarily due to a lack of time, I never managed to implement that. Maybe there should be discussion leaders to plan and manage such sessions.
Those who have followed Dimensions over the years may have noticed that I didn't post my usual year-end ramblings where I recap what's been happening in sort of a "State of Dimensions" message. I am not sure why I didn't get to it. Maybe it's because the past couple of years have been absolutely brutal in the publishing business. Advertising revenue from our tech magazines is way down, and it was that revenue that paid for much of Dimensions. I also feel awful over publishing the print version of the magazine so very infrequently. And every now and then, the usual personal attacks and all the crap that comes with being even in a tiny little bit of limelight can be quite a drag. If you ever wonder why so many websites come and go, it's mostly because their owners get sick of the criticism and abuse heaped on them. I mean, you can only deal with that many foulmouthed, mean-spirited loonies and nutcases (and we've had our fair share this past year), and death threats are unpleasant even when they come from crackpots.
After all is said and done, it's still all worth it. I want for Dimensions to be a place that is reliably there for those who want and need it, a friendly place that is always there, regardless.