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What should I be looking for and what kind of hardware would I need? Does this kind of thing require it's own server?
I'm going to to with open topic for bulletin boards which is a hosted solution which is great.
Does anyone know of something similar for chat functionality?
There should also be the ability for OPs to be in the chat room invisibly; problem users know just how to instantly cover up. If there are multiple "rooms" OPs should be able to move a user, they sometimes lose their way. If necessary to ever ban, there should be a ban database to keep a record of any past problems with a certain user, and IP numbers need to be available to some personnel because sometimes problem chatters come back using a different nickname.
That's not always all necessary, but it's a portion of what to consider in every-day situations in a busy chat environment; not all need that much functionality, depending on the users, but there's always monitoring necessary to some degree.
There are chat scripts available, free and commercial, to run on a variety of platforms, and some remote chat is also available, again some free and some commercial.
A thorough Terms of Service needs to be in place that users agree to, for the site's protection and to set up rules of play to start out with.
That's about the basics, hope it helps.
I have done a one hour moderated chat on boston.com. We would probably continue in this direction and offer set times for discussions then depending on their popularity, expand those times.
I like the idea of finding someone to host this for us. I'm assuming that exists. Do you know of any or can you recommend any?
Worked for a while with ichat, they don't host, but provide the software for you to run your own, afaik. [ichat.com...]
Just a note: the number of people who use chat often is a very small fraction of the total user-base. In my experience, there are board users and chat users (and the rare few who enjoy both). Consider carefully if you'll be happy with the costing if only 10% of your user base are interested in the chat system.
Another question: will they go through all the rigmarole required to get into your chat system? If you have a separate authentication step and a plug-in to download, that can filter out many would-be chatters.