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Lloyd, Christopher. “The Great Love Byte: Computer Networks.”
From email@example.com Mon Dec 6 20:52:06 EST 1993
From The Sunday Times (UK), 28 November 1993
“The great love byte; Computer networks By CHRISTOPHER LLOYD”
Computer networks are the singles bars of the 1990s. Christopher Lloyd decodes the pillow-type.
She was an American, writing children’s books in Chicago. He was British, a student of computer science at Lancaster University. Although they were nearly 4,000 miles apart, they fell in love by sending each other coded messages over a computer network. Adrian Hall, 23, and Dorothy McMannus, 21, were married on October 16 this year.
The mysterious world of computer messages, known to some as electronic mail, to others as bulletin boarding, and generally as cyberspace, is now one of the most dynamic, but least known, ways that people meet often in secret and exchange intimate conversation. Every night, thousands of lonely hearts in Britain, America and all around the world join people who simply want to ‘chat’, using their personal computers to find partners, share hobbies and search out others with similar tastes and interests.
There are special lines for gays, transvestites, and even straightforward heterosexuals. There is a forum for sex in politics, erotic photography and terrorism, as well as other more innocent pursuits such as butterfly collecting and train spotting. In all more than 7,000 discussion groups are chatting away 24 hours a day. Anybody can drop in at any time from any part of the world. The busiest computer chat-line, called IRC (Internet Relay Chat), exists on the world’s largest computer network, the Internet, that connects computer systems from almost every British and American university, government department, and many large companies. More than 15m people are linked worldwide.
It is a world closed to those who have shunned the computer age, but one which, for an increasing number of young people, is the gateway to an endless paradise of interactive flirtation.
‘I’ve been talking on the Internet now for five years, ’ wrote Hall, as we chatted via the Internet last Wednesday night he was in Philadelphia, I was in London. ‘We chatted about her book, about music and probably just the same sort of things most couples talk about.’ Many of their conversations were in a clandestine code known as ‘smileys’, a language that uses symbols as a kind of shorthand to express emotions. The widespread use of the smiley code was highlighted in last week’s issue of New Scientist magazine, which, in a short feature on computers as Cupid, provided its readers with a selection of the most useful symbols. Each is read by tilting the head 90 to the left. For example, :-) is the original smiley that cyberspace chatters put at the end of a joke, a trend that began about three years ago. Recently, the language has grown to a vocabulary of thousands of symbols. Here are a few of the more bizarre examples: !-( means ‘black eye’; $-) means ‘yuppie’; %@:-( means ‘hung over’; &.(. means ‘crying’; (:+) means ‘big nose’; :-E means ‘buck-toothed vampire’ (see list).
‘If you have a complete range of smileys to work with, a vast amount of emotion can be shown, ’ says Hall. He and McMannus had about 60 smileys that they used regularly in their romantic transatlantic computer pillow-type. ‘In November last year I had the chance to go to Chicago, ’ said Hall, ‘and decided to go and visit Dorothy on the way. I was intending to spend two days with her in Chicago, but ended up spending two weeks. I went back for a month in January and we got engaged.
‘The majority of people I know who have had electronic romances have broken up because they put on a false personality to please the other person, but Dorothy was very much herself on the net.’
Conversing by typing a series of messages to another person thousands of miles away across the world may sound like a strange way to socialise, but it has considerable attractions. First, it is cheap. Most users are able to access the network for the price of a local call through a specialist provider. They can then converse freely to anyone, anywhere in the world. Second, so much is going on. It is like walking into a pub with up to 15m different people chatting. You can drop in to see what is going on, contribute if you want, and drop out again. You can’t get that from a telephone. Finally, it is a romantic medium in the way that radio is more romantic than television because so much is left to the imagination. Your correspondents are probably ugly, but they may be beautiful.
Even within offices, electronic mail systems are connecting workers together. They can provide a new medium for budding office romances foolishly so, many would argue, since the billets-doux so confidently exchanged by lovers are invariably followed, like episodes of a high-tech soap opera, by colleagues who furtively hack in. Conversely, the medium can be used by some to harass others through the sending of abusive messages between personal computers.
Of course, in offices, people could be banned from using internal email systems. However, on the Internet it is impossible to regulate abuse since there is no one body in control (in the same way telephone conversations cannot be regulated).
There are three ways people communicate over the Internet. All that is needed is a computer with a modem the device that links a computer to a telephone line. Access is provided by most universities, an increasing number of businesses and a collection of specialist providers such as Compuserve or Cix in the UK. One firm based in Finchley, north London, called Demon Internet, provides direct access for Pounds 10 a month. Once connected you are given an electronic-mailing address.
To communicate with other users an email message can be sent (which costs nothing apart from the brief telephone connection to the Internet provider usually a local call). However, email is not the ideal medium for real-time chat, because it can take between three minutes and an hour to reach its destination, depending on the amount of traffic on the network.
The next option is Usenet News, a collection of more than 7,000 specialist groups or forums discussing almost every subject imaginable. Here, you ‘post’ your comments to all other members of the group (again, for free) and each time you connect to the Internet provider all the latest post is downloaded on to your computer.
Finally, there is the IRC (Internet Relay Chat), where most of the real chat takes place. Because the computer is connected to the network all the time you can chat instantly with anybody else in the group wherever they are in the world. Every night, at least 800 channels are created by people wanting to flirt, discuss politics or just chat. It is possible to have open chats where anybody can listen in, private chats involving a restricted number of people, and even secret chats between just two. Cliff Stanford, who set up Demon Internet last year, originally just to provide a cheap way for a few people to get connected, now has nearly 3,000 customers in the UK, and is afraid to advertise because he says his firm would be unable to keep pace with demand.
‘It is incredible what is out there, ’ he says. ‘Because computer users can download software off the network, it is like going into a computer store and being able to pick up one of every product for free. ‘Our customers split into about 50% technical and 50% consumers.’
The danger is regulation. Currently anything can be written or passed between computer users including pornographic pictures, secret access codes for hackers and even chat lines used by terrorist organisations. ‘But it’s ridiculous to argue in favour of regulation. Nobody regulates the telephone, ’ Stanford argues. ‘If you walk into a pub, which is much the same as chatting on the network, people are always swearing in the corner. You can’t stop that.’ If, however, you are looking for a secret way of communication, bear in mind that despite the ability to set up supposedly secret one-to-one conversations, GCHQ and the police are Demon customers. ‘They have joined, ’ says Clifford, ‘but they keep very quiet about it.’