The electronic meet market. (includes a list of online networks and related articles on precautions and on face-to-face meetings)
by Rosalind Resnick, Robert Bixby
For many of us, the idea of meeting new people can be a daunting prospect. Whether you're out on a date in hopes of putting the single life behind you or at a trade show trying to lasso new customers in-person salesmanship can be difficult for all but the most thick-skinned. Despite their much-vaunted reputation as social animals, most human beings would just as soon run, not walk, from any situation that involves someone other than the familiar circle of family, friends, and coworkers. Often, we'd rather sit home and mope than risk an all-too-personal rejection.
That's where online networking comes in. A cross between old-fashioned letter writing and high-tech electronic communication, online networking lets you work a room without actually being there. By logging on to an online service or bulletin board, you can use your computer and modem to send E-mail to that intriguing person across the way, carry on uninhibited chats about the most intimate of topics, and log off if the situation gets too hot for you to handle. Not only is modem-to-modem communication a boon for the painfully shy, but it's also a great way to find a job, start a business, get free advice, and hobnob with like-minded people you'd never meet at the neighborhood block party. And, of course, there's no need to dress up, make small talk, or pass out business cards.
Though online networking has been widely touted as a powerful home business tool, it's also gaining popularity with people looking for romantic and sexual liaisons--in the age of AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases, perhaps the riskiest of all interpersonal encounters. By logging on to one of hundreds of bulletin boards, anyone with a PC and a modem can hook up with an interesting stanger withou ever leaving the comfort and safety of home. And if you do decide to make your fantasies a reality, you can always arrange to chat by phone or meet in person. In fact, dozens of online dalliances have already led to matrimony.
These days, romance is popping up all over the online world--on America Online, with its racy realtime Romance Connection, on DELPHI, GEnie, and Prodigy, the somewhat stuffier IBM-Sears venture, which has started to run personal ads in its classifieds. Then there's CompuServe's CB Simulator, another realtime chat channel that boasts the famous story of the couple that met online and eventually married--with the bride, groom, and minister typing their parts of the ceremony into the communal PC.
For those desiring less serious relationships, there are plenty of bulletin boards that offer electronic meeting places for people looking to explore their fantasies--and perhaps set up a rendezvous later on. Penthouse, a sister publication of COMPUTE's, has launched an online service called Petline that lets you chat with Penthouse Pets and special guests from around the world, swap erotic E-mail with the service's other members, and download photos for private enjoyment. (Call 212-254-3838 to download the software necessary to gain access to Petline. Remember that you must be 18 or older to use Petline.)
Max K., 42, who's single and works as a consultant on the West Coast, says he logs on to America Online to find partners willing to share their fantasies over the phone. Though Max says he has been in a monogamous relationship with the same woman for the last four years, he typically logs on to the service four or five times a week to find the fantasy partners that give his life spice. He says his girlfriend knows all about his online adventures and sometimes joins in herself.
"I'm living in sin in a [monogamous] relationship," Max explains. "I've always been into fantasy, and this is the ultimate in safe sex."
Not all online relationships are as risque as Max's, of course. Many are downright conventional--people exchange messages, meet in person, and decide to form an ongoing relationship--maybe even marry. That's pretty much what happened to Kathie Fields and Kevin Morley, two novice online networkers who met on Prodigy. Kevin, 31, a never-married electrician in Spring, Texas, ran a classified ad in September 1991 that went like this: "White male, age 30, 6 foot 1, 210 pounds, looking for a female with a sense of humor for companionship and possibly more? I like to read, watch movies, computers and many, many other things. I can't tap-dance or tightrope-walk, and skydiving is against my religion. What? (Signed) Texas No Can't Dance."
The ad soon piqued the interest of Kathie, 36, a long-haul trucker and divorced mother of one, and the rest is history. They tied the knot on New Year's Day. "It started with this friendly chitchat," Kevin recalls. "We would go online and type letters back and forth." Says Kathie: "Then the letters got more intense. We found out that there was a lot we had in common."
But online networking isn't limited to people looking for love. It's a medium that unites people of all ages, occupations, interests, lifestyles, and parts of the world. In the realm of business, CompuServe's Working from Home Forum lets home office professionals swap notes on everything from marketing tips to health insurance. GEnie's Computer Press Association RoundTable features a bulletin board where editors can post help-wanted notices and writers can download business leads. America Online posts job listings on its Teacher's Information Network and lets entrepreneurs get help from the Service Corps of Retired Executives at the Microsoft Small Business Center.
Jeff Freeman, 25, of Front Porch Computers in Chatsworth, Georgia, says his fledging business never could've taken off the way it has without the help of online networking and advertising. Started as a home business in May 1991, Front Porch expects to rake in gross revenues of more than $500,000 this year and sell its homemade IBM clones to customers as far away as Europe and South America. Freeman, who says he has met a number of prospects through CompuServe's Working from Home Forum, spends less than $200 a month on an ad in the CompuServe classifieds and reaches as many as 800,000 people worldwide. No one would complain about that kind of return on an investment.
Take away his online connections, Freeman says, and his booming business would be "nowhere." Chatsworth, population 5000, is 100 miles north of Atlanta, he explains, and his computer store is the first and only one the town has ever had--and is ever likely to have. "With a store in a town like this, you may sell one computer at a time, but on CompuServe you may meet somebody who wants to buy multiple computers for his business. Our store is a small thing here, but with CompuServe I can reach the world."
Online networking is also becoming increasingly popular with people who suffer from chronic illnesses and other disabilities--people who, in some cases, can't leave their homes or hospital beds to find the support and companionship they desperately need. For this purpose, CompuServe offers a wide variety of support groups and resource centers, such as the Diabetes and Hypoglycemia Forum, the Cancer Forum, and the Living with AIDS Section of the Human Sexuality Forum.
"The typical reaction of new diabetics is basically one of horror and fear and uncertainty," says David Groves, 46, a longtime diabetic and former bank executive in Bedford, Texas, who manages the Diabetes and Hypoglycemia Forum. "Our typical reaction is to be comforting. What we tell people is that no matter what they've heard about diabetes, they can take care of it, and we'll help teach them how."
Groves's forum appears to be attracting a wide following. More than 5000 people have visited the forum so far from places as far afield as France, New Zealand, Japan, and Belgium. Groves estimates that 30 percent of the new members are people who've recently been diagnosed with diabetes.
The Kid Connection
But online networking--with the exception of Petline and other X-rated services--isn't just for adults. Prodigy, for example, has the Club (for Kids), which lets the under-18 crowd swap notes about everything from the hottest rock groups to their feelings about the snooty cliques who rule the school. The good news for parents: Prodigy charges a flat monthly fee, so the kids can talk as long as they like without busting the family bank account.
In the Club forum not long ago, a couple of junior high school kids became involved in a discussion about dissection, a hot topic in these days of animal-rights activism. "I oppose the dissection of animals," declared a member named Julie. "There is no reason to dissect many animals when the whole class could watch one on a video and possibly learn even more. It is understandable for medical students to dissect, but I really don't believe it's necessary to have seventh graders pair off and go at innocent frogs and worms. What important lesson does that teach?"
Richelle, another member, disagreed and didn't hesitate to say so. "What is so wrong with dissecting?!!" she asked. "It is the best way to observe and learn the complexity of a multicellular organism."
Like any other form of human interaction, of course, online networking is not without its risks. One is the chance that, just as in offline relationships, the online pal you give your phone number or address to can harass you with latenight phone calls or visits and generally make your life miserable. There's also this danger: When you chat online, it's harder to tell if the people you're talking to are really who they say they are. Larry Zinn, 39, a rock-'n'-roll tour manager who lives in New York City, says he once fell hard for a woman he met on America Online only to discover--the day before he'd planned to fly to Florida to visit her--that she was married. Though he was upset at the time, he says he's gotten over it and has since gone out with someone else he met through the service. "The online thing can be extremely addictive if you're not careful," he says, explaining that his biggest problem so far with online networking has been trying to keep a lid on his monthly online charges. Currently, he spends several hundred dollars a month in access fees.
The Online Thing
As computers and modems continue to proliferate, it's possible that one day online networking will become as common as business lunches and cocktail parties. Face-to-face business conferences will be replaced by forums and round tables. In the future, "What's your sign" may well give way to "What's your log-on?"
For now, online networking offers a unique opportunity to reach out to a universe of computer-literate strangers and find a friend, a lover, a customer, or even a fellow student with some strong feelings about dissecting frogs. Whatever you need, wish, or desire, from business relationships to human relationships, there's probably someone in front of a computer somewhere wating to share it with you.