Chapter three Images

Public Relationships

The Instant Appeal of Electronic Mail

Once upon a time, Katie Zitterbart met a dashing young musician named George. She was a freshman at Carnegie Mellon University. He was a sophomore.

The year was 1987, and Katie and George soon found that they had a good deal in common: they were bright, they loved music, they had mutual friends, and George’s brother had even married Katie’s cousin. In Katie’s own words, she and George “did that fall-madly-in-love thing.”

Some sixteen months later though, for all the usual reasons, the relationship came to a screeching halt. Heck, they were only kids. George moved to San Francisco. Katie moved on.

But the story took an additional turn in 1994, the year I first met Katie. Though she hadn’t dated George for six long years, and hadn’t even laid eyes on her old boyfriend for four, Katie was on the verge of moving three thousand miles away—to San Francisco, a cold, foggy, unfamiliar place—just to see if her relationship with him might be worth reviving.

And this was due, Katie told me, almost entirely to electronic mail.

Like Usenet, electronic mail is one of the Net’s key attractions. No need to lick stamps. No need even to buy stamps. With electronic mail, you can send messages to Wisconsin or Italy as easily as you can send them across the hall, and, depending on traffic, your message will usually get there in a matter of seconds. Moreover, if you are on the right system, a note will flash on your computer screen telling you “mail delivered to goofy@disney.com” (or whomever). You would have to pay the U.S. Postal Service $2.52 for certified mail to get similar confirmation, and it would take days.

Katie Zitterbart is twenty-five, fair-skinned, with short-cropped red hair, a nervous laugh, and a master’s degree in Literary and Cultural Theory. We meet at a sidewalk table outside Arabica, a coffee bar on Forbes Avenue in Squirrel Hill, the upscale section of Pittsburgh where Katie was born and raised. She tells me that her first experience with what the technical types call computer-mediated communication came while she was in college.

“Nobody talks at Carnegie Mellon,” Katie explains, “they send E-mail. A lot of the population at Carnegie Mellon are very, very bright, but not necessarily socially skilled, and it helps a lot of them. Electronic mail is good for people who have a hard time dealing with other people.”

For years, Katie used her E-mail access to communicate with friends, with other students, and with her professors, but it was no big deal. She didn’t become a geek or anything.

As for Katie and George, after their first mad love had dissipated into “just friends,” she still heard news of him, through mutual acquaintances, but she was truly startled one day in October 1993 when an unexpected message popped up in her electronic mailbox. (The mailbox is sometimes called a queue—because when you get electronic mail, it sits and waits, sort of like waiting in line. When you turn on your computer and connect with your access provider, you will be alerted as to whether you have messages waiting. Punch a button or two, and you can read them.)

The unexpected message was from George. A friend had given him Katie’s E-mail address, and George used this information to send Katie an electronic message, which, to the best of Katie’s recollection, said, “I’m here, and I’m here because you’re here.”

At the coffee bar, I ask Katie, “How did this make you feel?”

She smiles sweetly. “He got on the Internet to talk to me, and I really thought that was very nice.”

Some guys send flowers, but George sent electrons.

Katie E-mailed George back.

He answered.

She answered his answer.

It is very easy to answer electronic mail—depending on the software, it is usually as effortless as hitting one button (“respond”), typing a message of as many or as few words as you wish, and then hitting another button (“send”).

“We started corresponding back and forth,” Katie tells me. “You know, what’s going on at work, what’s going on at school—I hate school, I hate work. He’s a musician, so he tells me about the band, about tours they go on.”

Katie explains that George plays bass in a Bay Area band that is very, very hard rock. “Like Blue Oyster Cult.” His ethnic background is half Scotch-Irish, half Japanese, and she says he is “a very interesting-looking man.” And more than that, “He’s a healer. He’s on this earth to give people love. Everybody loves George.”

She seems to struggle for a way to convince me of this, since George and I have never met. “He’s the only guy I ever dated that my brother really liked,” she finally says, “which is saying a lot.”

Her brother is her twin, so I suppose it is.

The electronic correspondence between George and Katie went on for weeks before the relationship once again began to tread on serious ground. “One day he sent E-mail saying ‘I’m really missing you, this is the closest we’ve been for years. Maybe I’m not over you. What am I going to do about my girlfriend?’ And I was like, ‘Nothing! I’m in Pittsburgh, you’re in San Francisco!’ But then I started thinking, did I ever quite get over him?”

Katie and George have given me permission to reprint some of the messages that once flashed their way across the complicated web of computer networks that connected these two old friends. Katie went through the messages first, however, and changed every proper name to an X, because there are other people involved.

The message below came early on from George, in reference to some problems Katie said she was having with another man.

I wanted to think this through as **objectively** as possible. Before I start; DAMN I MISS YOU KATIE!!! reading this letter was as close as we’ve been for years. I’ll *gladly* :-) meet your man (if you and he want to) because I certainly have more guts than this hussie he hangs out with. OOPS I guess that wasn’t very objective! … as far as YOU are concerned, I think you know yourself better than I do. However, I’m intrigued by your sometimes slightly flippant reaction to the possible end of this relationship, the oh wells and such. Baby, where are YOUR feelings in all of this? Are you being honest with yourself about what you want in this relationship/life? (I’m sure your generation-x angst makes this tough) Two months is a good bit of time to think about this one though. … Good luck, and I truly hope things work out for the best. Take good care of yourself. If you need me, you know where to find me.

-G

P.S. That you love somebody other than me doesn’t hurt me in the least. I am terribly happy that you are in love and that you have someone who loves you. Your happiness, regardless of the situation, is what I wish for you. and to this end, I’ll do anything I can to help. I love you Katie Zitterbart. You deserve the best. Rock on.

The asterisks and capitalization, by the way, occur quite often in electronic correspondence. It is not possible to underline, so these methods are used to indicate emphasis.

A few lines into George’s message there is a little sideways smiling face :-) which is known as a “smiley” or, sometimes, an “emoticon.” It attempts to substitute for what might be conveyed by facial expressions and vocal inflection in a real conversation. You can also wink ;-) look sad :-( or scowl :-{.

The next message comes a bit later. After Katie dumped the boyfriend in question, George sent this:

hi Katie! Have you found a new love yet? I hope not. Will you wait for me? :-) take care, i miss you much.

-G

George’s digital sweet-talking worked its strange magic on Katie, and it was only a short time later that she decided to explore the idea of moving to San Francisco. So she wrote:

i am too much of a chicken to say this to you even over the phone, and i figure that you can blow off this message if you want to, and we will never have to bring it up. here goes …

you were right about me lying to you about how i felt when you came back for buggy, and you were right about me lying to you about how i felt about you after a couple of years.

if you accused me of lying to you about my feelings for you now - you would be right as well.

i think i am still in love with you, and don’t say “you always love the ones you love” or something stupid like that, i freaked out when i heard that you were planning to marry X, and if that’s what you want, then that is what i want for you, but i thought you would like to know what’s up.

also, i am going to do my damndest to get out there in the fall.

whatever it takes.

don’t worry about me closing in on you if you are still in a relationship with X, and don’t think that i have some stupid idea that we will get back together and live happily ever after, i mean, this may be some fantasy i have because of cyberspace [what would old sigmund say, i wonder?].

talk to you soon [i hope]. please don’t hate me for saying this in the first place and especially for doing it over the internet.

katie

Katie and many others on the Net don’t capitalize the first letters of sentences, which makes the typing simpler. The reference to coming “back for buggy” refers to a strange ritual at Carnegie Mellon. Every year, the engineering students build go-karts and recruit very thin, very small young women to pilot them in competitive races. The school doesn’t have much of a football team, so this serves as a sort of Homecoming event for many at CMU, including Katie’s friends. For those readers not familiar with CMU, understand that students at the Pittsburgh school are generally very smart—and often geekish as all get-out.

In any case, George replied:

Once, a long time ago, I was at a Primus show. The fans were screaming “You suck!” which was expected at Primus shows at that time. Les Claypool (my personal god) walked up to the microphone and said, “Tell us something we don’t already know.”

In almost 5 years, nothing has changed.

Except everything.

-G

At this point, Katie explains to me later, George asked her to quit sending E-mail for a while, because he was getting all nervous and confused. He wanted things to slow down.

Isn’t that just like a man? You don’t know what you got until it’s gone, then you go off and get it again, and then as soon as you think you’ve got it, you’re not so sure you truly want it anymore. These are hormonal problems all men face, however, and I’m not judging George. I have an old girlfriend, too, but as far as I know, she doesn’t have E-mail.

As best I can decipher the exchanges above (it has been quite a few years since I was young enough to really understand), George and Katie are both seeing other people (X and X) and neither one is particularly committed to the other person, though there is some reference to George marrying the X in his life. Then there is the Generation X angst that keeps them both from knowing what they want in a relationship. And then George goes to a Primus concert and the lead singer says, “Tell us something we don’t already know.” In this manner, love is found.

Man, oh man, I must be getting old.

Katie and George are not alone, by any measure. Stories of love and relationships have become so common on the Internet that they are rapidly becoming old hat. The Net world is turning into the singles bar of the nineties, and for good reason: the risk of sexually transmitted disease is wonderfully low.

I traded E-mail with Marcia, for instance, a California woman who met her fiance while playing a computer game on the Net—a game that involves a lot of role-playing.

“We initially met on TinyTIM,” Marcia explained. “We didn’t get to be on-line friends until we started talking more in depth on TrekMUSE, where we were hanging out while TIM was on hiatus.”

In case your Internet Jargon Handbook has fallen behind the sofa, let me explain that TinyTIM and TrekMUSE are the names of particular role-playing games. Later on, when Marcia refers to “RL,” she means Real Life, though understand that you should never, ever suggest to someone who plays such computer role-playing games that these games are not real life, or you will be called horrible names.

“When we met, we were both involved with someone else in real life,” Marcia wrote. “I considered this a plus, since I was tired of having people with whom my characters on line got involved with expecting that that involvement was going to translate into RL.”

But it did. After the RL relationships ended for both of them they met up in Colorado, where he lives. “When we met, we knew there was chemistry, and the rest reads like a classic long distance relationship.”

Marcia cautions, though, that she and her fiance never really considered themselves a couple until they had actually met face-to-face. (Seems like a sound practice to me, but read on.) “I’d seen too many people claim they were going to marry someone they’d never met, then conspicuously avoid them after they’d finally met them in RL and found out that they weren’t the person they thought they were: they were older/younger/fatter/thinner/taller/shorter/different ethnicity/inappropriate sex/richer/poorer than expected.

“The good thing about the Net is that it removes the dependence on physical looks for your impressions of people; the bad thing about the Net is that it removes the dependence on physical looks for your impressions of people.”

I corresponded with other Net sweethearts, including a couple that met by E-mail and now have three bouncing kids, and a guy in Norway who wrote a poem and posted it to a Usenet group, traded E-mail with a woman in the United States who liked that poem very much, and eventually traded photos with her. They became engaged before they even met. Last he wrote, the wedding was set for July 1995 and he was saving his money for a plane ticket so that he could finally meet the bride-to-be.

There is a progression here, in case you didn’t notice. Katie, of course, knew George, had once dated him in fact, though they had been out of touch for years. Marcia didn’t know the man who would become her fiance at all, but she spent some time playing long-distance computer games with him before the relationship began to cook. The guy in Norway was just interested in poetry, and the love affair came on by surprise.

Many people, though, have begun to use the Net more intentionally. Like George, they are saying, “I’m here, and I’m here because you’re here,” but they are saying it to thousands of strangers, hoping the message will somehow wind its way through the immense network of networks and land in the electronic mailbox of their perfect but undiscovered mate.

On Usenet, for instance, statistics show that alt.personals is one of the most popular of the newsgroups, based on the number of people posting messages. I suspect there are hundreds more who just read it because it can be jolly fun. On any given day in August, you might find a list of subject headings such as these:

Any Kind-hearted Female in Toronto?

Beast ISO Beauty

BiF iso SM for copulatory activities

BiWM looking for MEN in NJ!

Cheesecake Wars: Philadelphia anyone?

Desperate humanoid seeks Spam-mate

FAT CHICKS! I WANT FAT CHICKS!

Hello from Boston

Hello from the Universe

Nice Guy in RI looking for a Nice Girl!

Pantyhose fanatic seeks Dom Woman

Seeking lady of Eroticism and Passion

Seeking warmhearted lady

Woodstock. I SURVIVED!!!!!!

There were 722 such postings to the newsgroup on the day I checked, all less than a week old. The contents ranged from very nice people wanting to meet other nice people for innocent companionship to offers that were not only immoral, and illegal in most states, but impolite as well.

The following messages were posted anonymously, meaning I have no idea who wrote them. (And of course, meaning no one really knows, except, we hope, the actual writer. They may have been written by men, they may have been written by women, they may have been written by your eleven-year-old nephew, so be careful when you respond.)

Subject: (None)

I wanted to post for my sister but she is unaware that I’m doing this. But I’m sure if someone nice responds, she may not mind too much. It’s worth a shot I guess. She is very good looking but just not into the bar scene. You’re probably thinking how come she doesn’t have a husband yet, well I think because most guys she dates are either jerks or don’t want a family and she does. Or single guys are intimidated by her looks and maybe assume she’s already married. She is 5’ 7”, auburn hair, hazel eyes, very thin, very good looking (Cher look alike). She lives in South Jersey.

Subject: (None)

Hello,

We are a fun loving friendly couple, drug free, non-smokers, no STDS, and only very very light social drinkers. We are looking for a BiF to join us for a fun vacation to Reno. We are hoping to find someone we might be able to have a real relationship with. We will pay for the trip—you come along for the fun and adventure. You should be between 18 and 35, slender, and attractive. And of course like threesomes. We live in the Pacific Northwest. If you live in Washington or Oregon it would be better, for us. Hope to hear from you soon.

Subject: looking for zany S*F …

Somewhat crazy SWM would like to meet a similar woman in the Minneapolis/St Paul area. Somewhat crazy, you ask? Well, I would love to be involved in a plane crash - the ultimate roller coaster ride! (If I survive of course … ) I try to avoid cracks in the sidewalk. I grin insanely to myself all the time, mainly because life seems so funny and futile. Worst of all, I like Hillary Clinton. Gasp. I’ve been described as being so intelligent that I’m stupid … So if I sound like the wacky guy you’ve been waiting your whole life to meet, here I am!!!

As with E-mail, responding to these messages is usually as simple as punching one button on your keyboard (the actual button differs, depending on your access provider and software), then writing your response. If you feel at all tempted to write back to any of the people in the sample postings above, though, call me first—I’ll give you their electronic return address, and the emergency phone number of a competent psychiatrist.

Still, love is an odd and miraculous thing, and one never really knows where one might find it. To be honest, the examples above are a few of the more unusual and interesting messages, and yes, others are more traditional and sincere. The electronic personals, just like those boring old printed ones in your local newspaper, sometimes result in actual romance. In fact, the following message was also posted to alt.personals, and it was also anonymous:

Subject: ***THIS NEWSGROUP DOES WORK***

Hey all … Just wanted to drop a line to all those out there in North America or the world who are posting here. This really does work! I was very fortunate to have hooked up with the coolest person through a posting of my own. And this person actually lives in my own city! Imagine that … someone I can actually meet instead of sending mail 800 miles away. Anyhow … to all those who are frustrated because of no response … keep on trying. You may be pleasantly surprised!

Another interesting Usenet group is soc.singles, a place where conversation rather than proposition is the norm. You aren’t even supposed to post personals to this group, though some people do. You are supposed to discuss issues of interest to single people, such as the following subject lines:

Being Single and Depressed

Height and Dating

E-Mail, Love, Sex and the Morning After

How to Pick Up Women

The Worst Pick-Up Line Ever

One striking difference on soc.singles is that most postings are followed up with a response, and then a response to that response, and then another, so that the conversational thread goes on and on. It is an interesting place to find out what men and women think, how they differ, and what particular issues will bring them to the edge of physical violence. (Answer: most.)

And every once in a while you get to watch as an angry misogynist shakes his on-line fist or some disgruntled female posts a message with a heading something like this:

ALL MEN ARE USELESS, DISGUSTING BRUTES!!

Of course, I can’t really disagree. I would never date one.

There is an ongoing controversy in Net circles, by the way, as to why women are underrepresented—are they not as computer literate, or just less likely to fiddle away their time?—and whether they are made to feel welcome, or too welcome, on the Internet. Every couple of weeks or so a discussion bubbles up on one or another tabloid TV show about “Women Being Harassed on the Net” (check your local listings under Geraldo). The harassment in question is usually unsolicited E-mail. Some of it is just boorishness from horny young men, but some of it is the Net equivalent of an obscene phone call.

I went to my keyboard and distributed a question about this topic on various Usenet groups. In response, I received roughly as many messages saying that, yes, harassment does happen, as I did describing me as a dork-faced, pot-bellied pig with insufficient intelligence to pick my own nose. Some people clearly resented the question.

“I have been written to because I ‘sounded cute’ or because people thought I had a nice name,” Cindi from the University of Kentucky wrote in response to my request. “One person actually asked if I was blonde because my name ‘sounded’ blonde. I’ve thought of having my i.d. changed to a gender-neutral name, but I figured it’d be too much trouble. The people who have written me have come from my own site and from as far away as East Asia.”

A woman who goes by the ambiguous name of Dappy wrote, on the other hand, that she doesn’t think gender really matters, “unless the person ‘wants’ it to matter. For example if I want to attract a lot of mail from men looking for sex, all I would have to do is act like I’m wanting sex. That is why I post in certain ways. When I do get the occasional mail asking me if I’d like to hot-chat via mail, I just very politely turn the person down.” Dappy, she tells me, comes from a decoder her kids got in a Funmeal at Burger Chef.

But Shanen, a male who admits that his name is also somewhat ambiguous, doesn’t talk sexy yet still gets harassing mail. He is a student at Penn State. “Guys on the Penn State system like to go down the Campus list and choose a woman at random to pick up,” he wrote me. “Needless to say I have been selected at random many times. I actually counted them in the 93-94 school year and came up with 37.” He says the experience has given him “a certain appreciation for what women go through—some of the lame lines and guys who just won’t go away.”

The fact is, almost every Internet site system administrator has had to deal with harassment complaints at one time or another. Katie, the Squirrel Hill woman about to move to San Francisco to see if her love might be rekindled, points out that this, however, is in no way unique to the Net.

“I get messages, but I just delete them,” she tells me.” ‘Wow, you sound smart, are you pretty too?’ or ‘Do you have big breasts?’ But just imagine being a woman going into a bar, it’s the same thing. It’s like a pat on the butt. I don’t know why people complain about that sort of thing on the Internet, because you have so much control. There is absolutely no harm that can come to you.”

As for George and Katie’s love story, they did eventually agree that neither of them was entirely over the other, that it was worth another try, and Katie made plans to move to California.

“I’m not going out there just because he’s there,” she cautions, “because I think that would be a very bad thing, but he’s definitely the reason why my choice was San Francisco. And wouldn’t it just be the icing on the cake if this really did happen?”

She still hasn’t seen George for many years, but she tells me that she knows him better than she ever has, and guesses that he knows her better as well, thanks to E-mail.

There is something—she struggles for the words—“more intimate” about sending E-mail than writing a regular letter, or even picking up the phone. “For some reason, I can say things more freely. I’m not a very good letter writer, but I’m a good E-mail writer. I think it’s the editing. It’s not as spontaneous [as talking directly], so you can choose your words more carefully. There have been messages that we’ve sent one another where we say, ‘If this is really weird, just delete it and we won’t bring it up again.’ So you can say things in a way that is different than on paper or on the phone.”

I don’t know how far I agree with her on these last points. In my experience, E-mail is less intimate than a phone call or a good old handwritten note. There is no voice to convey meaning, and on E-mail everyone’s handwriting looks the same. Most of the electronic mail I receive, in fact, even when it comes from good friends, seems chilly, too blunt, more like a memo than anything else. Perhaps the reason is this: when people write electronic mail, they know it will whisk itself across the Net in only seconds, and somehow this seems to encourage people to whisk their fingers across the keyboard almost as quickly. Brevity is certainly the soul of electronic communication, and I suspect old Thoreau, a man who disliked haste, would have disliked E-mail as well.

I wonder, though, if what Katie sees as intimacy might be the seeming safety of electronic communication. With E-mail, you never see the expression on the recipient’s face, the reaction, and you don’t hear the catch in his voice, so you avoid the risks you might encounter face to face or in a phone call. Or perhaps the sense of intimacy develops because E-mail can be sent so quickly, with a push of a button, and seconds later it arrives at its destination. This surely encourages the impulsive nature in the writer. Am I sure I want to say that? Oh hell, just send it. These are the voices in your head as your finger hovers over the send key. You write fast, you send fast, and sometimes your first impulse is more honest than your second.

As we finish our iced coffees, I ask Katie how serious she thinks her renewed relationship with George has become.

“As serious as you can be living three thousand miles away and not seeing one another for four years.”

Will it work out?

“I don’t know.” She pauses. It is obvious that Katie is off-and-on embarrassed hearing herself talk about her old boyfriend George and their E-mail courtship. “This is weird,” she says more than once. “This is not like me.”

I ask Katie for her “best-case scenario,” and she answers with a classic Freudian slip: “I land a job real fast in public relationships and live happily ever after with George.”

A yellow truck double-parks across Forbes Avenue to unload cases of juice, and Katie stares thoughtfully into the distance through dark sunglasses. She has lived here, in this very neighborhood, almost her whole life. Her parents are here; her twin brother David lives nearby, as do more friends than she can probably count. Moving to San Francisco is no small thing, and she has obvious and understandable trepidation.

Will she miss everyone, I ask?

“My parents are buying a modem, getting on the Internet. The Internet is really going to be my lifeline to this city once I leave.”

What if the relationship with George doesn’t work out?

“I worry,” she confesses, “that we’ll be thrown together, declare our undying love, and then wake up one morning and realize that life has happened in the interim, and we have to deal with that first. And I don’t want to get my hopes up, because I’m moving three thousand miles away and if I’m disappointed that would be enough to move three thousand miles back—and I don’t want to do that.”

Last I heard from Katie, she had left Pittsburgh for the West Coast. Her E-mail account at Carnegie Mellon was no longer valid, and she promised to let me know as soon as she found a new account. But it has already been a few months.

Love is an odd and miraculous thing, just like the Internet, and love can be found in the strangest of places, even on a wire, on an electronic lace doily spanning the globe. I like to think that maybe Katie has lost interest in the wire because she is happy now with George, and maybe they sold their computers and bought a futon. Who knows?

Katie does. She has my E-mail address.

If you are reading this, Katie, please write.

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