It’s 10:45 on a Saturday night-a perfect time to mingle. The room is dark, I’ve got a cool vodka and tonic in my right hand and I’m ready for some fun. I find three young guys talking animatedly together about theatre, a great passion of mine. I listen quietly until one of them asks if anyone has seen a David Mamet play. “I have,” I say, eager for attention. “I love Mamet.” My comment goes unnoticed. “Have you ever seen Speed-the-PlowT' he continues. “Are you talking to me?” I ask plaintively. “NO!!” he snaps, making no effort to hide his annoyance.
So this is what it’s like, I think, as I get up from my computer to open the window and let in some fresh air. My first foray on to one of the much-talked-about “chat lines” that are snarling traffic on the big on-line computer networks, and already I’m being blown off. What’s worse, I’m being blown off by a bunch of computer geeks who have nothing better to
do on a Saturday night than talk to a computer screen.
I’m doing my research on CompuServe, one of the many commercial on-line services that act as doorways to the wired world. Several other services also offer chat lines: America Online, which is said to be popular with a younger, hipper audience, as well as Prodigy, Delphi, GEnie and eWorld.
After hooking up a friend’s used modem to my Macintosh, loading the CompuServe software onto my hard drive and dialling up the service (a process that took about 10 minutes), I was ready to start chatting on what the service cutely refers to as the “CB Simulator.” The first thing I had to do was choose a “handle,” or nickname to call myself. I decided on BRUNETTE: it lets people know I’m a woman, and it’s descriptive without being too provocative. Then, I clicked onto one of the two adult bands and discovered 36 “channels,” each with anywhere from two to 30 people already talking on it. I chose Channel 22, which is where I met JEREMY, RIDER and BOFFO, the three pseudo-intellectual name-dropping knobs who rejected me.
Live, electronic chat services are available from a growing number of Internet providers and most large commercial on-line services. Rates vary widely but are usually billed by the hour. Most services offer a parental-control feature that can be used to prevent use by children. COMPUSERVE: 800-487-0952 AMERICA ONLINE: 800-827-6364 PRODIGY: 800-776-3449 DELPHI: 800-695-4005 GEnie: 800-638-9636 eWORLD (Macintosh only): 800-775-4556
I decided to call it quits. I’ve got six more nights of this to look forward to.
SUNDAY, 10:30 P.M.
I’m trying to follow a conversation about snowboarding on Channel 7 when
I hear a “boing” sound, and a small box pops up on my screen. Displayed on the top of the box is the pseudonym of the person who wants to talk to me: MR. WONDERFUL. Hi, Brunette, wanna talk? he asks. Neat. A one-on-one conversation. Sure, I type in response. He tells me he’s from New York City, and asks what I’m “into.” Uhh . . . whaddaya mean? I ask. Well, I’m into S & M, light bondage and first-level pain, he says. You? Oh. I see. Not really my idea of wonderful, I say. Better luck next time. And I delete the box from my screen.
Sheesh. Over the next hour, five more people invite me for private conversations. VERY CUTE GUY says he loves brunettes. STUDMUFFIN wants to know if my hair is dark brown or black. It’s
medium brown, I tell him. Then, he asks about the hair situation on the rest of my body. Gross. Eject button.
I click on the “who’s here” icon and scroll through the names of everyone who’s on CB tonight. There are about 175 people, slightly fewer girls than guys (or so it appears from the handles—given the anonymity of the service, you can never be sure). About a third of the handles have some sort of sexual connotation, ranging from the coquettish FLIRT(f) to the cocky I’M GORGEOUS to the slightly less subtle HORNY FOR YOU. I log off, thinking that if I ever actually become aroused looking into the cold, blue light of my computer screen, I’m going to ask my family to have me humanely put down.
MONDAY, 12:45 A.M.
I’ve been told the best time to go on CB is between 11 p.m. and 2 a.m., so here I am. On Channel 18, CHRIS, JJ and FLIPPER are making polite conversation about the weather in their respective home towns. Hi Everyone, I venture. Immediately, I get three replies: Hi Brunette, Welcome Bru, Hello there B! I ask where they’re all from and find out FLIPPER is
‘I try PARTY CHICK, and within seconds there is a cacophony of “boings ” coming from my computer; I suddenly seem to have caught the attention of every drooling, testosterone-charged male in cyberspace’
from Los Angeles, JJ is in Düsseldorf and CHRIS is in Frankfurt.
FLIPPER, a sales rep for a pharmaceutical company, isn’t exactly setting the world on fire with his intellect, but CHRIS, a bond trader, and JJ, a student, are actually somewhat witty. We talk about being in our 20s and how bitter some of our friends are about the lack of opportunity for us in today’s world. We talk about travelling; between the four of us we’ve pretty much covered the globe. CHRIS tells me he thinks I’m charming and sends me a smile, like this, :). I write back that he’s the least stupid person I’ve met on this thing. (Little does he know that BOFFO and MR. WONDERFUL are his only competition.) LOL, he writes—CB-speak, I find out, for “laughing out loud.”
TUESDAY, 11:15 P.M.
Tonight I think I’ll change my handle. I try PARTY CHICK, and within seconds there is a cacophony of “boings” coming from my computer; I suddenly seem to have caught the attention of every drooling, testosterone-charged male in cyberspace. I revert to BRUNETTE and click on to Channel 17, where QZAR, FIREFIGHTER and DDKUPPS are in a heated debate about American politics. After bandying back and forth for a while, I ask DD what her handle means. It’s descriptive, she says. Oh . . . OK. . . I get it now . . . (which means “grin”), I reply, feeling myself blush. We are joined by HORNY HILLBILLY from Lexington, Ky., who engages us in some surprisingly savvy discussion about some legislation President Clinton has recently sent up to Capitol Hill.
Suddenly, amid talk of minimum wage and welfare, we are interrupted by STEVIE, who boldly asks, Where are all the sexy women I want to talk to? QZAR advises him to choose another channel. But seconds later, I get a one-on-one message from STEVIE. What do u look like? he asks. I bett your hot. I am so impressed by STEVIE’s eloquence I decide to humor him for a while. Yeah, I’m stunning. I’m 5’7”, 120 lb., 36-24-36, green eyes, long, lustrous chestnut hair and full, pouty lips. (OK, so I lie a little . . . my eyes are hazel, not green.) WOW ! ! ! Ill ! ! ! ! exclaims STEVIE. You are pretty.
STEVIE is calling from Cairo, and when I try to tickle his funny bone with a few jokes, he responds, Look this is costing me big $$. Are we gonna get it on or what? Hang on, STEVIE, I say, eager to get back to the discussion of funding cuts to PBS. I want to lick you all over BRUNETTE, and hear you mone with deligt. Oops. STEVIE has inadvertently keyed a message meant for me into the open-line box, so it can be read by everyone on the channel. Hey, check your hormones at the door, man, says QZAR. I’m ROFL (rolling on the floor, laughing).
While having a couple of beers with my friends, I tell them about the characters I’ve met on CB. We discuss the concept of “meeting” people without having any idea who they are or what they look like. The anonymity is fascinating, and strangely liberating. I think it’s the perfect ’90s solution to messy relationships: it’s clean, antiseptic and no one has to risk anything. Being a woman on CB is, in an odd way, an ego boost; when you get past the pervs asking about your shaving habits, there are some fairly normal-sounding, quick-witted guys out there who seem thrilled to talk to a bright, opinionated woman.
I’m feeling sort of thoughtful tonight, and after I get home and log on I scroll down the “who’s here” list looking for someone with an intellectual-sounding handle. I find someone called WILLIAM FAULKNER and send him a message, asking him if he likes his namesake’s work. He replies that he does, and we chat briefly about The Sound and the Fury. He tells me he’s married and lives in southwestern Ontario. He seems fairly normal and somewhat intelligent.
Before long he starts telling me about
‘If I ever actually become aroused looking into the cold, blue light of my computer screen, I’m going to ask my family to have me humanely put down’
his affairs—some with other women, some with other men. I tell him I’m not judging him, but ask if his wife knows that he’s bisexual. He says no, that she’d be crushed. He then asks if I want to meet him—he’s going to be in Toronto on business in a couple of weeks. I tell him that I’m seeing someone.
He inquires if my boy friend and I might be interested in “exploring” some things with him.
I bid him good night.
Are you sure you don’t want to meet with me? Just for a coffee? Jeez, this guy won’t take a hint. I suggest you look in the personals in your local alternative newspaper. Bye! He sends three more messages, apologizing for coming on too strong, asking if we can be friends and finally sending the message: I love you, sweetie. Please don’t ignore me. Now, I’m getting scared. I search the icons on top of my screen and find one that says “squelch invitations.”
I think I’ve had enough “chat” tonight.
THURSDAY, 1 A.M.
Hi. Welcome, says ARNIE GRAPE on Channel 35—an homage to a character in the sleeper hit What’s Eating Gilbert Grape. ARNIE, an 18-year-old college kid from Minneapolis, turns out to be one of the cleverest and wittiest personalities I’ve yet come across on CB. I tell him about my experience with the American novelist the night before. He says, Sexist guys suck with the intensity of1,000,000 Dirt Devils.
ARNIE goes on to say Newt Gingrich frightens him, and I ask if he voted for Clinton in ’92. Then, I realize he was only 16 back then. I feel old.
FRIDAY 1:30 A.M.
Tonight’s my last night on CB. I check out Channel 15, where six people are talking about how strange the CB thing is, how they all originally thought only losers went on it. I used to think so, too.
I switch to a private conversation with a woman named CAROLYN and a
guy who called himself CHUNK. CAROLYN is a 21-year-old lesbian veterinary student in Memphis, Tenn. CHUNK (whose real name is Chuck, but who is mad at himself because he’s recently put on a few pounds) is a 28-year-old actorscreenwriter from Raleigh, N.C., who— surprise!—waits on tables. We discuss relationships and death and politics and sex and pets (CAROLYN’S cat keeps walking across the keyboard, transmitting very funny gibberish messages) and just about everything else that comes into our minds.
We talk for four hours. CAROLYN mentions how weird it is to feel close to people after talking to them like this—someone whose face you’ll never see. We wonder if it would have been as much fun if we’d all met in a bar. We would never have had a conversation like this, says CHUNK. You’re right, I say, it would have been really banal and polite and uninteresting.
We talk a bit more and entrust one another with our real names. I am LOL and :) and so hard my face is hurting. It’s now 5 a.m. and I say we should probably call it a night. I tell them I can’t afford the $6.80 an hour it costs to talk on the CB any more, and will be giving it up as of tomorrow. Come on, Sara, how about we all meet again for one more conversation before you leave us forever, implores CHUNK. I ask him to e-mail me with a date and time, and promise I’ll be there.
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