America On Line

Voice Card  -  Volume 19  -  John Card Number 7  -  Fri, Mar 29, 1991 1:04 AM

Last night I got in a bar room brawl and swept an enchanting woman off her feet without even leaving my bedroom. It was all done electronically, with my new modem and one of those nation-wide computer networks.

There are four or five of these services, and against my better judgement I finally took the plunge this week and joined one of them: America on Line. I like this one because it has a fairly nifty Macintosh interface with windows and buttons and icons and pull-down menus and even sound effects. Some of the others are still basically scrolling text on a blank screen (because that's about all the old DOS machines, the lowest common denominator, can handle). The rate is five dollars an hour with no surcharges to speak of. Normally this would include the phone charges, but since I live in the middle of nowhere I also have to pay a little extra to call into Helena.

I have already discovered that this service is seductive, addictive, and a major threat to my ever-precarious checkbook. There are all sorts of features like news updates hot off the wire from any country in the world, an on-line Grolier's Encyclopedia, access to the same airline reservation system that travel agents use, electronic shopping, etc. But for me, the most compelling feature is the ability to interact with thousands of people across the country in all sorts of interesting ways. These networks support a fascinating sub-culture and provide a provocative peek into life in the 21st century.

Everyone who joins has to choose a screen name. These are not unlike the "handles" that CB radio fanatics use. If you want you can even create multiple screen names and choose different names for different situations. It makes for an interesting choice whether to use your real name or devise a wacky pseudonym. As far as I can tell about half the people use pseudonyms and half use their real names. I appear as "JohnCartan."

One form of interaction is the bulletin board. This is a fairly passive approach. You simply post a message with a question or comment and wait for other people to post responses. There are hundreds of these bulletin boards arranged like folders on a Macintosh desktop. Thus, if you are into cat breeding or scuba diving or Asian politics, all you have to do is find the appropriate folder and start reading and writing messages. The variety is mind-bending, with young Christians sitting right next to the Sado-masochists. And of course you can always start your own board.

There is an extensive writer's group with sub-folders that include come-ons from new journals looking for writers, all types of workshops (you can easily transmit a word processing file containing your latest chapter for others to read and comment on), and discussions on how to break in to the market, etc.

Another area I found intriguing was the romance connection, a place for electronic personal ads arranged by age group or region. One sub-folder in this area, called "Happy Endings," contains accounts of actual romances that began with on-line encounters.

One such account was particularly riveting. Two people named Bob and Miriam apparently decided to keep a running log of their relationship. The opening entries were posted before their first meeting. Bob eventually flew to the East coast to spend a week with Miriam. One week became two, then three. They were both flying high, gushing incoherently about love and even marriage. But in the ensuing months the relationship began to unravel. There were the usual roller-coster ups and downs except that in this case there were all sorts of kibitzers offering sympathy and advice and pressing for more details. The whole thing was extraordinary.

Another cautionary tale was penned by a woman in her thirties who became deeply embroiled in a rather steamy correspondence before discovering that her suitor was a precocious twelve year old boy. They went on to form a warm, but entirely platonic friendship.

But I digress. The most exciting form of interaction comes in the form of live, instantaneous conversations. It works like this. You enter an imaginary room filled with other people who, like you, are actually sitting in front of their computers somewhere. A window opens on your screen with a large scrolling text field. At the top of the window is a display like a stock ticker that shows who just entered and who just left. At the bottom of the window is a small text field for composing messages and a "SEND" button.

As soon as you enter the "room" a transcript of the current on-going conversation begins to flow in the main text field. Each line is prefaced by the screen name of the speaker. It's not uncommon to find twenty people in the same room, all talking at once.

But it's not as chaotic as you might think. Often three or four people will monopolize the conversation while the rest lurk at the periphery, occasionally tossing in a comment or question. Some of the screen names are pretty wild: Puppet, Tripod, Membrane, Brickhead, etc. These people soon learn to react and type in phrases with incredible speed. One woman I questioned claimed to have a typing speed of 120-150 words per minute - and proceeded to demonstrate! (She also had a neat magic trick of making pictures of champaign glasses and other cocktails appear on the screen. It turned out that she had programmed a series of Macros that could dump text pictures with a single keystoke.)

The result of this is that people are actually able to type as fast as they can speak! Thus the conversations are fairly natural and easy to follow. Of course all the participants are disembodied voices, but this is alleviated to some extent through the use of the sideways facial gestures that Paul first brought to Archipelago: :) for smile, :( for frown, ;) for sly wink, and :* for kiss. (Keyboard kisses are the ultimate in safe sex!). Participants also use acronyms like LOL for "laugh out loud." It is even possible to send actual sound effects by enclosing the sound tag in curly brackets {meow}.

To jump into the conversation stream, all you have to do is type a sentence and hit the SEND button. The system is quite fast, so your line jumps into the transcript almost instantly and is immediately seen by everyone in the "room."

The rooms are arranged like a kind of hotel. To enter into any conversation you first have to pass through the "lobby" which is almost always crowded. You then have your choice of numerous "public rooms" like "Teens", "Over 35", "Gay Men", "HyperCard Forum", etc. Some of these rooms are scheduled on a weekly basis so people with a given interest can plan to get together. You can also create your own public or private room with a click of a button. So if you meet someone interesting in the lobby and you want to talk without twenty other people listening in, you can just invite that person into another room.

It is also possible to send an "instant message" to a particular person. Such a message will appear with a kind of harp sound in a special window with a REPLY button underneath. If the person chooses to reply you can carry on a private conversation even as the transcript of your room continues to unfold.

You can also send e-mail (electronic mail) to any other member. These messages will be waiting for them as soon as they enter the system. You can even instruct the program to automatically log on, send pre-prepared mail packets, store all incoming mail, and log off once every four hours.

Finally, you can find out more information about a given person by examining a membership database. Thus, if I want to know more about "brickhead," I can ask the system for information. At the very least, I will find out where brickhead lives. If he or she has filled out a personal interest file, I can find out a lot more. It is also possible to search the database by key words. Thus I was quickly able to assemble a list of all single female writers, and all members from Montana.

In addition to the hotel rooms, there is also an auditorium where you can meet famous people. The first night I signed on, for example, I was given the opportunity to "Meet Donny Osmond." (I declined.) The service also seems to provide a staff of on-line experts and facilitators who wander around answering questions and stirring things up. For example, I gathered that there was a staff veterinarian who could answer questions about colicky puppies.

There. Now I think you have enough background information to understand what happened to me last night.

It was, at first, a fairly ordinary night. I had already performed several chores and done some more exploring and at last drifted into the lobby. There was some woman named Ariel4 in the center of the crowd surrounded by a host of male admirers, many of whom were puzzled because Ariel was not listed in the membership lists AT ALL. This had never happened before and was a great mystery. Ariel claimed it was because she was a sprite.

It was all quite noisy so I decided to see what the "over 35" room was like. There were about ten people in the room. I confessed at the outset to being slightly underaged and was forgiven. So far so good. It soon became apparent, though, that the same thing that happened with Ariel was happening here. Various people in the room apparently did not exist.

The mystery was soon solved. It turned out that this very night was the first attempt at a grand linkage between several different nation-wide networks. Notices had been posted weeks in advance, but like most people I failed to notice them. Thus the members of America on Line, an all-Macintosh service, were now comingling with at least one of the major PC networks. And because all the kinks had not yet been worked out, members of one system could not get information about members of another system.

This is where I made my fatal blunder. I asked what I thought was a simple question. "So who is using Macs and who is struggling along with PCs?"

The room exploded! "How Elitist!" "I am STRUGGLING with a 386!" "I'm sick of you Mac people with your superior attitude!" "Shove that Mac up your ass!" And so on.

Of course I really shouldn't have used the word "struggling." I thought of it as a good-natured jibe, but this room was full of PC users who had apparently been suffering from a steady stream of Mac visitors, and mine was the jibe that broke the camel's back. I tried to apologize but that only seemed to make matters worse. The guy who made the ass remark, "MasterNeil," was particularly nasty. Someone shouted "Neil! John! Break it up!" A woman in the crowd tried to psychoanalyze me. In the corner of the room someone was delivering a sermon about the lions lying down with the lambs but this was drowned out by a constant undercurrent of mutterings about Mac people and their "attitude." Finally, I just left.

Upon returning to the lobby, I told everyone that I just had a hair-raising experience in the over 35 room. "What happened, John?" "Tell us about it!" "Well," says I, "whatever you do, don't ask people whether they're using Macs or PCs. Good way to start a brawl."

Before this nugget had been fully digested by the crowd a woman named Katherin38 asked "So what kind of machine do YOU use, John?" and followed this with a "". Before long, everyone was shouting out their machine types and the room began to divide into two camps.

But I only had eyes for Katherin38. She was incredible. Amidst this growing furor she was actually flirting with six different men simultaneously. She was typing witty come-ons and put-downs almost faster than I could read them. I consulted the memberlist and discovered only that she was from Oroville, California.

So I began flirting back. Being disembodied is a very liberating experience. I found myself saying things I wouldn't dare say face to face. Without missing a beat with her other admirers, Katherine took me on. Soon I was typing at full speed just to keep up with her. The words began to flow from my fingers and into the lobby before I could even think what I should say. It was exhilarating!

By now the entire lobby had become embroiled in the computer war. As if the Mac/PC battle wasn't bad enough, now some people were shouting "Up with Unix!" and others were shouting "Unix sucks!" A stranger wandered into the room, exclaimed, "What a night!", and quickly exited. Now there were farting noises and facial gestures with teeth. "Yikes!" said I, "I'm getting out of here!"

I was just about to pop out when a sound like wind blowing across harp strings burst from my speaker and a private message from Katherine appeared! "Don't go!" she pleaded.

I was almost too astonished to hit the reply button. No sooner was my message transmitted, then came another strum of the harp and a second message from Katherine. I fired something back and to my delight there came a third message and a fourth. My heart was pounding as back and forth we went!

Incredibly, in another part of the screen, I could see that Katherine was still flirting with some of the other men even while she was sending private messages to me! But as our conversation escalated, her performance in the lobby began to falter. To the other men, who were unaware that she and I were talking on the side, she began to seem distracted. And still our messages flashed back and forth.

I left the lobby and still the messages came. We began to kiss. At first a simple :* and then a screen full of kisses. Suddenly, a resounding ! I was mumbling something about love at first keystroke and she was laughing out loud.

We were both sleepy and bound for beds a thousand miles apart, but somehow we just couldn't stop. Parting was such sweet sorrow I could tap my keys till it be morrow. More laughter. Promises to send mail to each other. Another . "Oh you temptress!" I cried, "My Visa bill is already in the stratosphere!" And then, with my last ounce of strength, I directed my mouse to "Sign Off" and collapsed on the floor with harp music still ringing in my ears. What a night!

So now I'll send off a letter. Or maybe there's already one waiting for me. I'll keep you all posted!


Since writing this I have discovered that Katherine is 39 and happily married with a 13 year old daughter. She just enjoys flirting! Nevertheless, we have become good friends and she has introduced me to a single woman (also named Katherine) who lives in San Francisco (with two cats in a wonderful old Edwardian flat with a fireplace and bay windows that overlook the bay). I'll keep you posted.

Post post script:

Many, many adventures since writing this, and many new friends. I already have enough material for a novel. I have found that, ironically, the sense of liberation that comes with being disembodied leads eventually to a new kind of restraint. Meanwhile my VISA bill continues to rocket into the stratosphere. More next time...