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The Alternate Chat Room

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On September 4th 2006 the world lost a famed and intrepid animal lover, Steve Irwin. Soon after, the Internet was abuzz with the news of his tragic death. Checking the news on the next day, during my lunch hour, I scanned some of the stories surrounding the circumstances of his death and this is one of the pages on MSNBC I stumbled on covering the story: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/14663786. I then proceeded to read some of the comments left by the viewers. As expected, most contained messages from bereft fans. There were also a number of messages from readers commenting on his carelessness with animals or the fact that he got what he deserved as well as a number of irrelevant messages from jokesters. I thought that everyone was entitled to their opinion and I moved on.

A couple of months later, as the year was about to turn over, I happened to revisit the same story linked from a page on MSNBC touting the most popular stories of 2006 and I was astounded by the number of comments left on that page. As I recall, some 70,000 entries had been logged by the end of 2006. I was in disbelief over the sheer number of readers that had left comments on that page and I decided to read some of the latter ones.

As I read some of the comments a feeling of confusion set in. The messages had no relevance to Steve Irwin or his legacy. They weren't even about animals or nature. They seemed like random ramblings posted by a few readers, but as I read a few more a pattern started to emerge. The message board was actually being used by individuals to pass messages to each other. Real time conversations were taking place as I was scanning the board. Topics ranged from dinner preparations, to old friends, to buying a new car with a number of people typing one-liners back and forth.

This board was no longer a comments section about Steve Irwin but it had morphed into a private chat room for a few people engaged in private conversations, a substitute for a chat room or Instant Messaging, if you will. Only the messages weren't so private as they were out there for the world to read.

As of this writing that board has logged over 100,000 messages. New posts continue to pour in and I'm willing to bet that majority of them have nothing to do with the famous crocodile hunter. Apparently the admins at MSNBC have no problem with this. Comments are most likely scanned by a program to weed out obvious profanity and people are left to their own devices to manage the board. That level of freedom coupled with endless computing resources (storage and bandwidth) at MSNBC opened the door to an alternate usage of the board many took advantage of quickly and in force.

This just goes to show how unpredictable and ingenious the online community really can be. Many forum and chat sites would dream of having the level of traffic and interaction that this one obscure board has attained and surely there are many more boards of this type living in the shadows, unnoticed by the casual browser or even the site administrators. The fact that such usage is improper is besides the point. What is notable is the level of people's inventiveness to bend and tailor a simple and trivial product into a makeshift, yet effective, tool for communication. There's a business lesson in there waiting to be discovered.

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