How Does Chat Work?

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01
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What Are Chat Rooms?

How Does Chat Work?
Image, Brandon De Hoyos/About.com

Chat rooms are a unique way to meet hordes of new people in real time. Unlike instant messaging, chat connects people together in a single window for text-based conversations. You can also send voice messages, connect your webcam and video chat and more from some chatrooms.

But, how does chat work? In front of the computer screen, it may seem effortless to sign in and choose a topic from a directory of virtual rooms. Behind the scenes, however, a network of computers and servers are communicating at lighting speed over copper and fiber optic cables to deliver the seamless experience you can find across chatrooms on IM clients and other free services.

In this illustrated step-by-step guide, we will explore what happens after you sign in.

Step-by-Step: How Chatrooms Work

  1. Your computer connects to the chat server
  2. Commands are sent to the server
  3. You are connected to the chatroom

Related: How Instant Messaging Works

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Your Computer Connects to the Chat Server

Chat Server
Image, Brandon De Hoyos/About.com

A protocol is used to connect people for real time communications online, like when you meet with friends in a chatroom. When you first sign in to your IM client or a chat service, this protocol will connect your computer to the program’s servers. One such protocol is Internet Relay Chat, also known as IRC.

Step-by-Step: How Chatrooms Work

  1. Your computer connects to the chat server
  2. Commands are sent to the server
  3. You are connected to the chatroom
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Sending Commands to the Chat Server

Sending Commands to the Chat Server
Image, Brandon De Hoyos/About.com

When you perform an action to open a chat, commands are sent via your keyboard and mouse to the server. The server will then send byte-sized units of data called packets to your computer. The packets are collected, organized and assembled to produce a directory of available chat room topics, if one is available.

On some instant messaging clients, chatroom listings are accessible through drop-down menus. Selecting a specific room will result in your computer sending a command to the server to open a new window and connect you to the chat.

Step-by-Step: How Chatrooms Work

  1. Your computer connects to the chat server
  2. Commands are sent to the server
  3. You are connected to the chatroom
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How Chat Messages Are Sent

Chat room messages
Image, Brandon De Hoyos/About.com

When you are connected to a chatroom, you can send real-time messages which can be seen by all the people in the virtual room. Your computer will transmit packets containing the message you wrote to the server, which then collects, organizes and re-assembles the data, down to the very font, text size and color used in some instances. The message is then echoed by the server to every other user in the chatroom.

Some chats offer you the ability to private message (also called direct messaging or whispering) another user. While the message may appear directly on screen along with other users' messages, it can only be read by its intended recipient. Other services, however, deliver the message in a separate window. To see how this might work, see my article on how IM works.

On a server, chatrooms are sometimes referred to as channels. You can move between channels or in some cases access multiple channels at once, depending on the client or service you are using.

Step-by-Step: How Chatrooms Work

  1. Your computer connects to the chat server
  2. Commands are sent to the server
  3. You are connected to the chatroom