Atlanta -- Imagine a giant ravine. You sit at the keyboard of your personal computer on one side. Across the chasm are experts with the answers to almost all your questions.
The trouble is, you can't hear what they say.
That's because these experts can only be reached on the electronic networks, called bulletin board systems, that link computers over regular telephone lines. But crossing over is easy with almost any PC and a modem, the device that connects it to a telephone line.
Once you accomplish that technological feat, whether you connect to a commercial service such as Prodigy or a local free bulletin board, you're ready to belong to an extended family.
Because these systems attract a wide cross-section of people -- plumbers, neurosurgeons, computer experts, mountain climbers and makers of fine cherry pies -- you'll get expert advice on almost any topic. That's why these services are called bulletin boards; you use them like the cork variety by leaving an electronic message or question for everyone to see.
Sometimes you'll get a personal reply. At other times you'll find the answer on a forum, usually devoted to a broad topic such as sports, cooking, wine or almost anything you can name.
"One of our members wanted to send her son to a camp where they bicycle," said Prodigy spokesman Steve Hein.
"The trouble was, she didn't know anything about bicycling camps. So she left a note on Prodigy asking for advice. She got six notes suggesting different camps, almost overnight."
The grateful woman called Mr. Hein.
"She made the observation that, in American society, we don't really have an extended family anymore, that this was as close to one as she'd ever found."
It's Mr. Hein's job to think of nice things to say about Prodigy. But almost any veteran of the bulletin board world has a similar story. Electronic courtships lead to marriages; long friendships have flourished among people who will never meet.
And, as computers become even more common, the type of people who use bulletin boards has changed.
"Back in 1979, when we started, the people who used our service were computer hobbyists," said Debra Young, a spokeswoman for CompuServe. "Now we have 980,000 members around the world, and they're students, family members, almost anyone."
No longer are all the conversations technical ones. Today you're just as likely to find a heated debate on the merits of a particular wine or information on travel to Spain.
It's much the same on the amateur networks. These systems are works of love, an expensive hobby for their operators. Some charge a small yearly fee, but it's seldom more than $35.
These boards don't offer all the features of commercial systems, which include wire service news, electronic encyclopedias and plenty of games. But amateur boards are an inexpensive introduction to roaming the networks.
But to visit either type of board, you must cross the electronic ravine. That's a step that intimidates many new users. It shouldn't.
The commercial networks -- Prodigy and CompuServe are the biggest -- provide telephone help for new users. If you join either service, you can get help from a human who goes way beyond telling you how to log on. Even if you need instructions on installing a modem, you'll get all the help you need.
You won't get as much help if you decide to start with a free local bulletin board. Once you connect to these systems, the operator and other members will answer your questions. But the catch is, you have to figure out how to connect to the board in the first place.
But don't let the technical terms throw you. Think of it as learning a language that will make it easier to visit a new land.