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Why use the Net to learn when you can use it to natter?

Arnold Evans enters the world of virtual chat

Teachers supervising a silent reading session in a school library should keep an eagle eye on little girls who ignore the shelves of Babysitters' Club to make a bee-line for the reference section. Here, they are likely to select The Readers Digest Great World Atlas and the Britannica Macropaedia, Volumes 13 to 29 inclusive. Once they've lugged the tomes back to their desk, they construct a barricade behind which they hope to natter away undetected.

It's worth recalling those little girls during any Lottery funded ICT training session when a posse of earnest techno-evangelists will try to convince you that the Internet is primarily an educational resource. Don't believe a word they say. Of course there are countless sites on the Web packed with information, but they are no more than an elaborate facade - just as ingenious as a pile of encyclopedias. The reason why more and more people spend an increasing amount of time online has nothing to do with education. All they really want to do is chat to each other.

Don't confuse "chat" with other forms of online communication. It doesn't mean contributing to forums or emailing friends or writing fatuous comments in the visitors' book on other people's websites. When you visit a chat room - and there are hundreds of thousands of them - you have real conversations in real time with a bewildering assortment of people scattered across the planet, a few who give the distinct impression of having hailed from planets other than our own.

To do things properly, you need a sound card, speakers, a microphone and software (which you can download free). You can then join rooms which function like a telephone conference in which everyone jabbers away simultaneously. Add a simple camcorder to your set-up and you can enjoy a crude form of video-conferencing - for the price of a local telephone call.

However, you don't need to buy any expensive add-ons or to download any software to enjoy most of the thrills and spills of chatting online. Instead visit a room where the conversation is being conducted purely in text.

Before entering you must choose a "nick" - your nom de plume - a soubriquet which pithily captures the essence of who you are. This is your one big chance to be a CoolDude, 007, Scarey Spice or any other alter ego you care to adopt. Some rooms also offer you the option to include brief biographical details. I always describe myself as a 27-year-old dot-com squillionaire who has an uncanny resemblance to Hugh Grant. But be warned, other people are not so honest.

Once inside the room, you'll be in the company of 30 or more participants, all busily chewing the digital cud. You "listen" to the conversation by watching the on-going conversation scroll down the screen.When you feel a compelling urge to chip in your pennyworth, you simply type out what you want to say, hit the return key and your bon mots instantly appear on screen for your new found friends to read and inwardly digest.

If you want a private conversation with any member of the group, it doesn't take more than a couple of mouse clicks to enable the both of you to create the equivalent of your own exclusive room where you can enjoy a private tete-a-tete.

That's right! You and a total stranger can chat just as if you'd met in Harry's Bar or had a brief encounter in the canteen on Platform Two. It's no surprise, then, that chat rooms have proved a godsend for lonely hearts. Sadly, the rooms are also somewhat of a Shangri-la for the dirty mac brigade and testosterone-laden school boys in search of a snigger. They can quickly reduce any conversation to an endless - and incredibly tedious - stream of obscenity.

But don't despair. It's easy to avoid the rooms where they are most likely to congregate, because every room has a name which gives a fairly unambiguous indication of what you're likely to find within. So, if you want to have an in-depth discussion on the Exchange Rate Mechanism, you'd probably be wise to keep out of Busty Blondes Begging For It.

However esoteric your interest or hobby may be, you'll be delighted to find that there is a room somewhere on the Internet crammed with people who find it just as fascinating as you. You might prefer, instead, to grace a room dedicated to a particular age group or nationality. Not all the rooms are English-speaking so you can, for example, enjoy the unique experience of talking in French with a monsieur or madame without having to worry about your accent or whether the chemise you're wearing is suitably chic.

There are also rooms intended exclusively for children. The best of these have restricted access and are permanently moderated so offer a reasonably safe environment. But children still need to be reminded not to reveal their name, address, telephone number or that innocuous string of digits embossed on mum's credit card.

Some of the children's chat rooms allow a teacher to register a whole class. It's a bit of a hassle, but could be worth it as it offers pupils the opportunity to make contact with peers in every country from Azerbaijan to Zimbabwe. If they don't know anything about these places with strange sounding names, a virtual chin-wag may motivate them to hit the reference section to find out more. And, when they get there, if they do choose to hide behind volumes of Britannica, that's only because chatting on the Internet still isn't quite as much fun as the real thing.

For an easy place to start chatting, try http:chat.msn.comYou can "chat" to me at

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