Thursday, May 11, 2006

The joys of hosting

Last time I wrote about being a chat host for moderated chat rooms. Interesting job though I can't believe how much time I wasted on it. That's a perspective from 10 years later and it took me a while to get worn down by the (mostly) unpaid job.

I find it significant that the charm of hosting waned about the time that internet access became affordable. Remember that I'm talking Australian ISP's in 1995/1997 when it was charged by the hour at significant dollars per hour. If all you're doing with the internet is a bit of random surfing plus some email 5 or 6 bucks an hour isn't a lot. If you're doing much more than that then it can really add up.

MSN took it pretty seriously. I imagine they were concerned with legal liabilities as much as anything else but they required new hosts to undergo training. They provided us with numbers to call all around the world to alert emergency services and we were given guidance on how to handle, for example, the person who threatened suicide online. I know of at least one case (I wasn't involved) where a suicide attempt was thwarted by the timely intervention of emergency services in Perth, Australia.

At the end of each shift we were required to save a transcript of the chat and post it on a private message board. I very much doubt anyone had either the time or the inclination to read those; they were there to back up our decisions in case some specced malefactor complained.

To put this into perspective, in 2000 I hosted my own chat server in my living room and whilst I could have saved complete transcripts automatically (the technology had improved) I didn't bother. Why would I want to spend hours offline reading endless lol's and gmta's and ;-) posts? As the chat server operator I needed hosts but if I couldn't trust my choices to exercise good judgement then it became an exercise in futility.

We also hosted in pairs at a minimum, with a senior host, usually an MSN employee sitting in a private chat room. We'd be in both the public chat room and the private one trading impressions of where TotalHottie's conversation was going whilst keeping an eye on SouthCalGuy, a known troublemaker!

I've hosted four chatrooms simultaneously and let me tell you that's a CPU bound job indeed. I can context switch with the best of them but keeping an eye on up to 200 conversations is quite the task. Fortunately you get to know the regulars and you can rely on Arfur's commonsense; he's never going to be a troublemaker. Lucy211 however, needs to be watched.

I had my own suicide scare one evening. Alice came on and started acting somewhat strangely (as much as anyone in a chat room can be said to act but you know what I mean). This is 10 years ago so I don't remember the exact details but something about what she was typing rang an alarm bell so I 'whispered' to her. She responded, fortunately, and I got the whole story.

As to how much of the story I believed form your own opinion. The measure of my belief isn't all that important. But let me tell you, when you're trying to handle someone who's threatening to slit their wrists the amount of your belief doesn't really matter; what's important at that moment is the attempt to elicit, without being seen to elicit it, the whereabouts of the person whilst persuading them that perhaps life is more attractive than it seems at that moment!

Whether you believe it's a serious attempt or someone jerking your chain you have to behave as if it were real! If it's a jerk, well, so what, so you wasted an hour of your life. If it's real there's the possibility that you may have saved a life.

It was quite the relief the next evening when Alice came into the chat room again; it was quite obviously the same person rather than a coincidence of nicks.

It wasn't always serious stuff though. There was one woman from Houston who came into the chat room nightly (my time, it must have been 6 AM her time) to flirt and brag about how beautiful, sexy, desirable she was. I don't even remember her nick but I started watching for her arrival. When she arrived I'd type,

'Houston, the ego has landed!'. I do believe she looked forward to that comment!

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