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Modern-day 'pen pals' chat via computer

Hall Roberts likes to chat with TCK570. They often talk late into the night - about everything from video games to religion.

But they have never met face to face or heard each other's voice. In fact, Mr. Roberts, a feed and seed dealer in Iowa, doesn't even know where in California TCK570 lives. That's because they're computer chums, communicating through messages typed on home computer screens.

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As personal computers poke their glowing faces into more American homes, users are discovering what might be called an emerging information subculture. Desktop-computer buffs like Roberts let their fingers do the talking - exchanging information and ideas through electronic communications networks.

''The people you usually get to know the best are the ones you share similar computer interests with,'' says Roberts, who likes to swap tidbits about the latest equipment with other Apple home-computer owners.

Electronic conversations are often carried on through one of the large computer data-base firms, such as The Source or CompuServe. These companies offer a smorgasbord of computer services. Subscribers gain access to them by dialing a special telephone number that links their home computers to a central computer.

Among services offered is an electronic ''mailbox,'' allowing users to receive and send messages. There are also various electronic bulletin boards, such as one on CompuServe for those interested in photography. Here, subscribers read messages left by others and post their own notes.

A third mode of communication is more like a regular phone call, with each person's comments appearing on the other's screen moments after the words are typed.

One attraction of this faceless communication, say enthusiasts, is that it lets people meet and talk with each other without being inhibited by outward appearances.

''The first time I chatted with one individual, it all sounded very authoritative,'' says David Hughes of Boulder, Colo., who teaches a course in electronic English over The Source. ''And it turned out to be an 11-year-old in Bethesda, Md.''

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Computer chums say it's easier to find help for specific problems and zero in on people with similar interests through electronic networks. On The Source, for instance, a user directory lists subscribers' names, states, and hobbies or interests.

''In the town I live in, probably less than 1 percent of the people are really familiar with advanced telecommunications systems,'' says David Ulmer, an independent computer software designer in Gresham, Ore.

But with the help of a directory, as well as electronic bulletin boards, Mr. Ulmer says he has been able to communicate with 30 people from all across the country over the last six months. Last year, for instance, he took part in a Christmas party over The Source which brought together people from as far away as Alaska and New Jersey. These computer ''partygoers'' wrote short blurbs about what they thought Christmas would be like in the year 2001.

''Then we began discussing what we foresaw.'' And at that point, says Ulmer, electronic messages were flying so fast, it was hard to keep up.

Besides the sparkle of the new technology, many computer-linked conversationalists say more information gets exchanged this way than in face-to-face conversations.

''It's much tougher to hide behind a typewritten message, because everything said is recorded,'' says Fred Dudden, a Denver computer services salesman. ''So the other guy can go back and review what you said.''

At the same time, making acquaintances through a desktop computer can present problems. Users say it's sometimes difficult to convey subtle meanings without the help of eye contact or voice inflection.

''It can be a little unnerving, because you're trying to read into what they write, to figure out what they think,'' says Wayne Ross, an accountant who telecommunicates regularly with about six people.

Trying to express humor is especially tricky, says Mr. Ross, ''because you can't show a smile. And if you like sarcasm, you can offend people pretty easily.'' Some get around that snag by typing in short phrases - such as ''ha ha'' or ''giggle'' - to indicate when a joke or pun is intended.

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