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Electronic Version of The Backyard Fence

BOB and I have never seen each other. Never talked. Never written in the traditional sense.We "met" a couple weeks ago when I logged onto a computer information service during the failed Soviet coup. I was looking for a fresh perspective on events. I found Bob. Bob is an American selling software in Moscow who kept me and many other CompuServe members informed during the tense three-day confrontation. For a few dozen hours, we were part of an extraordinary phenomenon - something I call the "other" conversation. In any modern democracy, politicians, journalists, academics, and others hold a national dialogue on the events of the day. Anyone can tune in. Read the news or watch one of the news-analysis shows. Joining that conversation is much tougher. So, a growing number of people are turning to electronic bulletin boards to start their own conversation. These electronic conversations take place every day on every imaginable topic: rare books, gardening, or, in our conversation with Bob, the Soviet crisis. An estimated 2 million people in the United States log on every month to one of the thousands of bulletin boards across the country. Similar services are taking root in Europe, Japan, and even the Soviet Union. Anyone who thinks the art of conversation is dead hasn't logged onto an electronic bulletin board. On a recent stroll through some of CompuServe's 350 issue forums, I found people discussing statistical analysis, mining the moon, appropriate opera pieces for an auditioning tenor, and recent confrontations between Jews and blacks in New York City. "It allows for the sharing of information and feelings like no other medium I've experienced," says Don Watkins, a system operator on CompuServe's busiest forums (which deal with computers). Users with a computer modem can read various messages "posted" on the board, join a conversation on-line, or leave a message and see the response. Sometimes, these electronic conversations go on for weeks. A lot of people don't like computer-generated mail. Messages can be overlong or trivial. Four thousand years after developing the first postal system, humans still haven't figured out how to sort good letters from bad. Even the name "E-mail" sounds suspiciously utilitarian and antipoetic. Nevertheless, bulletin boards that work create an electronic community. "I think it is ... a replacement for the old get-togethers we used to have with our neighbors," says Karen Buker, a user of the Prodigy information service. "We have become more of an isolated society and Prodigy allows us to communicate again." One friend Ms. Buker made through Prodigy is coming from New York to spend Thanksgiving with Buker's family in Seattle. When a little-known poet passed away last month, a number of writers who had "met" him through CompuServe's literary forums shared some touching tributes. Then, to everyone's surprise, the poet's son logged on with his father's computer, collected the messages, and left one of his own: "I guess all I am saying here is how important this odd form of communication was to [my father] and that you all were more to him than little blinks of a cursor on some distant computer screen." Perhaps that's the point. Technology changes the form of communication. People dictate its substance. Sometimes, that substance is quite deep. During the Gulf crisis, one Prodigy member wrote her son (a serviceman) every night before going to bed. Prodigy printed out the messages and distributed them through the United States military postal service. When her son was killed, the woman wrote thanking Prodigy and the military for giving her a way to tell him "I love you." The letter was forwarded to Maj. Michael Whitaker, who headed the military's delivery during the Gulf crisis. "When those days got really hot and heavy for me and I wanted to throw up my hands and quit, I would find a quiet corner and pull that letter out and weep," he recalls. "That letter was my inspiration."