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Electronic Mail Turns Taciturn Teens Into Voluble Letter Writers

Speed and convenience revive an old art

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IF letter writing is a lost art, as everyone says it is, everyone should meet Brian Woodward. ''I don't need an excuse to write,'' says the junior at Bentley College in Waltham, Mass. ''It's just so easy. You can just tap your thoughts down on the keyboard and send it away.''

Mr. Woodward corresponds with a high school friend at the University of Colorado, his sister in Colorado Springs, and his father, especially his father, at least once every two or three days. Woodward's secret? Electronic messaging, otherwise known as e-mail.

In much the same way that postal reforms sparked a letter-writing boom in Britain 150 years ago, the ease and availability of e-mail are creating a new generation of letter writers. Worldwide, some 27.5 million people have access to electronic mail, according to a December estimate by Matrix News. The number of consumer users hooked into the largest of these networks -- the Internet -- is doubling every year, writes newsletter editor John Quarterman.

That makes for a lot of e-mail.

''We were never letter writers -- ever!'' says Gwendolyn Forest. But that changed two Christmases ago when her computer-literate brothers bought each family member a subscription to the CompuServe on-line service. ''Because of their expertise [in computers], we've all been brought into this world, which is wonderful,'' Mrs. Forest says.

On this particular day, she sent an e-mail to her brother in Oklahoma. She corresponds daily with her mother in Reston, Va. ''It may seem silly to exchange mundane things,'' Forest says, ''but for us, as a mother and daughter, it's like saying: 'I'm so proud of you!' ''

Main depot: universities

Much of the e-mail boom appears to be fueled by universities hooking up to the Internet.

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