On-line guides assemble face-to-face AOL volunteers party in Baltimore

April 14, 1996|By Joe Mathews | Joe Mathews,SUN STAFF

Mike and Amy Sircy were married in Chicago on April 6. But, by their own admission, it hasn't been the most important event of this month.

The couple -- he from his computer in Florida, she at her keyboard in Chicago -- first exchanged greetings in cyberspace about two years ago in romance "chat rooms" organized by America Online, a commercial on-line service provider.

Encouraged by their conversations, Mike drove for a face-to-face meeting in Chicago in September. So it made sense that Amy, a homemaker, and Mike, now a computer programmer for the Air Force stationed in Germany, would spend their honeymoon in Baltimore.

They were two of 227 volunteer "guides" for America Online who gathered at the Lord Baltimore Hotel downtown this weekend for a four-day party, featuring tech-talk, an Orioles game and an award ceremony for cyber-excellence.

"We planned our wedding around this," said Staff Sgt. Sircy, a 15-year Air Force veteran originally from Lebanon, Tenn. "We wouldn't have missed this for the world."

Working nine hours each week, more than 500 guides help AOL's 5 million subscribers navigate cyberspace, and they monitor any users whose Internet communications push the limits of propriety. AOL recruits 80 guides every two months to handle increasing traffic on its services.

Guides paid for their transportation to this party. The company paid for hotel rooms, food and entertainment. Company representatives also held a question-and-answer meeting with guides yesterday afternoon.

The parties are designed to introduce people who work together on America Online every day, but who rarely see each other because they live in cities stretching across the country.

Guides attending this weekend's bash ranged in age from 19 to 72 and included lawyers, doctors, teachers, students, law enforcement officials and even a dog breeder.

"We talk to each other every night," says Rita Wiseman, 42, a private contractor for AOL who supervises the guides. "But the majority of us have never met in person."

Ms. Wiseman is the godmother of AOL guides, a seven-year veteran who sleeps four hours a night and is known by the user name "tease mee."

In May 1994, she sponsored the first AOL Guide Bash near her home in the Ohio River town of Bellaire, where guides had a picnic and competed in a bowling tournament.

Subsequent parties have taken place in New Orleans and Las Vegas, where 40 people packed a wedding chapel to watch two AOL guides exchange vows.

Most guides say they volunteer because they enjoy computers and the contact with other people around the country.

But dealing with profane AOL members can be frustrating. They act as witnesses, referring information on problem users to AOL employees, who may act to revoke users' AOL privileges.

The hours on-line produce a remarkable intimacy among guides, even though they may know each other by their computer names instead of their real ones.

"One of the nice things about getting people together is that we are like a family," Ms. Wiseman says.

"It's no different than people who volunteer for a Kiwanis club, or in their city. We're here to help our community.

Pub Date: 4/14/96

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