AOL meets buddies off line Online: Computer service ventures into the real world, with many fans following suit.

September 14, 1996|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,SUN STAFF

Before she signed on to a new life, it was scary how depressed she was. Her marriage was crumbling, and she was "seriously lonely." Then, one day, America Online slipped an introductory disk into her mailbox. Let's try it, urged her concerned teen-age son. And now, after untold hours of online communion, she is a new woman with a new name: LarkAngel. And she speaks of her cyber savior with grateful zeal.

"All of a sudden I realized I didn't have to be at home depressed and lonely. I could honestly tell you it changed my life," says Lark-Angel, 41, who like many in cyberspace uses only her screen name in the real world, partly for security reasons and partly because one of the charms of life online is having a secret identity.

LarkAngel, a secretary in a Prince George's County school, even met her fiance online. Today, the couple will buy her engagement ring. And, when the "AOL on the Move" roadshow parks in Fells Point this afternoon, LarkAngel and her intended (screen name Hal9000XXL) intend to be there.

Since Aug. 15, an AOL caravan has trekked cross-country touting the glories of online communication and AOL 3.0, its upgraded software. On message boards established for each of the 30 cities where AOL is stopping, subscribers babble in excited anticipation, as if they were being graced by a hot rock band and not a bunch of computer wonks.

At the interactive fair, AOL staff will demonstrate AOL 3.0's features, such as instant messages, online Buddy Lists, building home pages and how to drop hypertext links into e-mail.

It's not so much the chance to check out electronic wizardry for free that tickles subscribers. It's the chance to meet cyber buddies face to face and to party!!!!! A considerable number of AOL members regard the Baltimore visit as an opportunity for one long pub crawl.

Consider this message:

"Hey y'all. I'll be down at Fells Point sometime after 4 p.m. Who's getting the beer?" asks someone named RotScegner.

Others sign on to praise Baltimore: "Welcome to the greatest city in the world. Hope to meet everyone downtown that day," writes FloraH.

And there are messages aplenty reassuring suburban AOLers that downtown Baltimore is safe enough: "Don't panic, no need for bodyguards. Some of Baltimore's finest will be protecting us in and out of uniform," assures someone named JAJP46.

Not everyone buys into the AOL mystique. The Internet is littered with anti-AOL sentiment from critics who expend considerable energy panning the company's fees, electronic glitches and publicity blitzes.

But for those among AOL's 6 million subscribers who treasure their ability to chat among themselves, the online service makes it "extremely easy," says Robert Seidman, author of the newsletter Online Insider and arts editor at NetGuide magazine.

AOL's not like any old company, LarkAngel says. "I do feel a zTC special allegiance. If it hadn't been for them, I would never have met [my fiance] and he would never have met me. I do feel very protective of AOL."

Chat is exactly what pulled Lark-Angel, who lives in Crownsville, into the AOL vortex. She met her future husband "accidentally" in an AOL chat room during last January's blizzard. As they conversed, LarkAngel acquired a sense of the man he was. If his online thoughts sounded gloomy, she would sign off and call him in New Jersey.

Then came the day when Lark-Angel traveled to New Jersey. "We spent about 17 hours together. By the end of the day, we knew we had something so wonderful, [something we] didn't expect at all."

Hal9000XXL moved to Baltimore, helping to slash LarkAngel's AOL bill, which in her most desperate hours surpassed $400 a month.

But the money has been well spent, she says. She speaks of the time her 18-year-old cat expired in her lap while she was online. "My cat just died," she wrote, and the immediate response from online friends was "like a group hug. They were so compassionate it brought me peace right then and there," LarkAngel says.

Not every AOL subscriber is thrilled about the tour. On the Miami message board, one disgruntled member described his 50-mile drive into town to greet the bus, only to discover it was on the way out of town. AOL had neglected to alert subscribers to a time change.

In Baltimore, certain AOL subscribers are none too happy about the visit, which coincides with Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year celebration. "Who planned this tour? Not very sensitive of them, was it?" writes the wife of TRUK3304.

But for every complainer, there's a guy like PCA Walt coming to AOL's rescue: "Could we all stop griping and just enjoy the tour stop? Thanks!! And for those who can make it, I'll see you there."

The AOL "interactive festival" takes place from 4 p.m. to 8 p.m. at Broadway Square in Fells Point.

Pub Date: 9/14/96

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