All the lonely people are hooking up in cyberspace

November 29, 1993|By Don Stanley | Don Stanley,McClatchy News Service

The first privately owned computer bulletin board system was started in Chicago in 1978 by Ward Christensen. Today, according to Boardwatch magazine, the authority on the subject, there are some 60,000 systems in the country with 13 million people using them.

What's going on here? Just another high-tech seduction of nerd bank accounts? Some new diversion for a TV-weary middle class increasingly nervous about going out at night? Well, sure, some of this and maybe something more.

It was in 1957 that Max Lerner noted, in "America as a Civilization," that the then-growing nostalgia for small towns wasn't really for the towns themselves. It was for the feeling of community the towns represented in American minds.

"The critical question is not whether the small town can be rehabilitated," Mr. Lerner said, ". . . but whether American life will be able to evolve any other integral community to replace it."

Now there are those who think his "quest for community" might lie in the networking of the bulletin board millions, those who tap into these electronic networks, allowing them to send messages to one another and retrieve information from a central source.

"Perhaps cyberspace is one of the informal public places where people can rebuild the aspects of community that were lost when the malt shop became a mall," writes Bay Area computer-mediated communications maven Howard Rheingold in "The Virtual Community," a book that seems to take up Mr. Lerner's challenge.

Bulletin board systems (BBSs) do, after all, have their social effects.

"I used to not like to talk to anybody," says Terry Meleski, a Sacramento, Calif., subscriber to Toto's Playhouse, an area adults-only BBS. "I'd come home from work and watch TV or play Nintendo. But when I got on the board, I met people I had things in common with because I'd talked with them on the board. It's really neat. It's like the ultimate party line."

The ultimate party line wasn't very expensive for Ms. Meleski. She bought a used computer and modem for $500. Her Toto's connection costs $12 a month. For that she gets three hours a night logged on to a system that provides games, chats, message boards and graphics, all literally at her fingertips.

Meanwhile, prices for new equipment keep falling, even as the equipment gets more powerful. It's possible to pay a lot for an elaborate setup, but the basics -- computer, monitor, modem -- ++ can be had these days for as little as $1,000. Cheaper than joining a country club, another kind of "integral community."

Many BBSs are free. You just dial into a system and its program takes over. You can play the games, post and read messages, send electronic mail and download programs the board has available. The problem often is just making contact. Don Kuhwarth, founder of Sacramento's leading bulletin board, says only about 10 of the dozens of Sacramento BBSs have multiple phone lines. If somebody else is logged on, you get a busy signal.

With more than two lines, system operators (SysOps, in the lingo of cyberspace) usually begin charging subscriptions or their phone bills eat them up. For instance, Mr. Kuhwarth's 24th Street Exchange has 24 lines and charges users $4.95 a month ($3.95 for students) for logging on three hours every day.

With so many free systems, few users restrict themselves to only the one they may subscribe to. Even such commercial operations as 24th Street offer limited free access to callers, hoping to woo new subscribers. So there's a lot of moving around via computer each evening.

"You might equate BBSs with bars, you know," Mr. Kuhwarth says. "I mean there are some people who like to barhop and others who always go to the same old hangout."

That's a relevant comparison for 24th Street user Todd Bartush. Responding to a question posted on the system's message board about the kind of people encountered, he messaged back:

"People who share common interests, but may be leery of the usual sort of forums available, whether that be a club, a bar, whatever. I've always been an introvert, but I also enjoy spending time with people. Modeming lets me meet people and have friends without all the hang-ups associated with 'going out' to seek people."

"Chats" are the way BBSers socialize. They gather in "rooms" devoted to certain general subjects and converse in real time. If they're bored in one room, they can always try the conversation in another. Interaction is the reason for bulletin board systems whose purpose, says Mr. Kuhwarth, "is to promote communication between callers." The meetings are often as casual as bumping into acquaintances on a park bench. And, of course, they can become as heated as a political argument in a neighborhood bar, the difference being nobody ever starts swinging.

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