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These friendships are // Really Clicking

For great conversation, writer Kit Reed used to meet colleagues for lunch. Today, instead of dressing up and going out at noontime, she turns on her computer for an hour of lively exchange with friends throughout the world.

Reed, who grew up in the Tampa Bay area, is a writer of psychological thrillers and mainstream fiction. She also teaches writing at Wesleyan University in Middletown, Conn.

Using the university's computer mainframe one day last December, she found herself logged into a virtual community, a MOO (Multiple Owner Operated).

"It's an amazing virtual world in which anything is possible," Reed says. "It's high-level conversation over a short period of time with really intelligent people who play off of one another."

Reed looks forward to her almost daily get-togethers in an electronic mansion with a dozen or so newfound friends. They include a geneticist in Michigan, a student in Australia and a Canadian professor who is considering running for Parliament. There is also a mathematician from the Sorbonne who is refining his English, a playwright from San Francisco and a South African novelist.

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Last fall, Sue Fishalow of St. Petersburg decided to take her son, Robert, then a high school senior, and several of his friends on a tour of prospective colleges. Several universities on her list were "up East." Between football and class schedules, time constraints made flying a must.

Fishalow, who has a law degree and holds master's degrees in Greek and Latin, teaches Latin at Tampa's Plant High School. She has pretty much circled the globe by air with her husband, Brad, an orthopedic surgeon, and with groups of friends, but she never had flown without another adult before. She was terrified.

On a whim, she put the word out on America Online.

Her E-mail request went out to some 200 airline pilots. Fifty E-mailed her back with tips. One, from Ohio, "sent a concrete list of suggestions," she recalls. The day she flew he even notified the airline of her fear of flying.

The pilot was David Barth of Dayton, Ohio, who himself was just learning the basics of navigating the electronic communications highway. A veteran aviator on a commuter route for one of the country's larger airlines, Barth had had plenty of experience with anxious passengers. When Fishalow's request came across his screen, he felt qualified to coach her a bit.

When she got back from her trip, there was an E-mail message from Barth: "How did things go?"

That was the beginning of their friendship.

Reed and Fishalow are among the millions who are linked to a circle of friends electronically and are reveling in their new relationships. They are part of a new social subculture who gather on the Internet for a cornucopia of communication in cyberspace.

Interestingly, many computer relationships begin with persons' protecting their privacy, using the electronic equivalents of CB radio "handles" or nicknames.

Even when they do find out their friends' names they may refuse to reveal them.

Some of the secrecy stems from unpleasant experiences among some correspondents. For the most part, however, the contacts have been positive.

"You can tell from the way a person communicates whether it will be a worthwhile relationship or not," Reed observes. "The great thing is if you don't like the way a conversation is going, you can disconnect the person from your screen."

So far, Reed has met two of her electronically linked associates in person. Last summer, on a visit with their son in Brussels, Belgium, she and her college professor husband, Joe, took a side trip to London to meet a social semiotician she had met online. In September he spent a day with them in Middletown.

Last month, the Reeds had another visitor, a doctoral candidate in math who is on a yearlong fellowship in Tel Aviv, Israel. Before that, he had sent a draft of a novel to Reed. They had long exchanges about it for months during gatherings in the electronic mansion.

Reed loves the quick repartee that occurs among the 12 or so persons who gather in any "room," a cyberspace version of a meeting place. There may be several hundred people online at any time, but they are in different places in the MOO and can move from room to room.

"There's just a 5- to 30-second lag time between messages," she says. If someone at the gathering goes far afield or monopolizes the conversation, it's possible to block them out and hold a private conversation with someone else in the group by merely hitting a single key to signal the text is private.

Reed belongs to a highly sophisticated and somewhat elite program called the VAX system, which is hooked up chiefly to academic institutions. Participants known as "wizards" are the major programers who maintain the environment within the MOO.

"The great thing is that there is never any idle chatter. You immediately get down to what is interesting," Reed says of her high-energy conversations.

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Throughout last fall and winter, Fishalow and Barth corresponded using secret names. They discussed everything from world events to the weather. In the spring, when Fishalow was about to go on break from her teaching duties, they exchanged names and talked by telephone. Barth invited her to come to Dayton for a visit.

Not only did Fishalow get on a plane without knowing a single person on board, she also went off on holiday to meet strangers in an unfamiliar city. Her husband shrugged as he kissed her goodbye at the airport, Fishalow recalls. Her mother thought she would never be seen again.

"It was the most daring thing I have ever done in my life," she says.

She spent the weekend with Barth's sister and brother-in-law. They, too, had become computer friends.

As part of the tour of Dayton, Barth and his family made sure Fishalow got to see the Museum of Aviation History.

The friends clicked so well that in June, Barth invited the Fishalows to the family's place on Lake Leelanau in upper Michigan.

"It was a leap of faith for Brad to go on vacation with a total stranger," she says. The two men talked "Air Force and wine," she recalls.

As 15-year-old Sarah Fishalow was getting ready to go to camp in North Carolina, she too had some qualms about flying and got on the computer for a conference with Barth. In the meantime, Barth had linked Fishalow and Sarah with an 84-year-old retired doctor in Cincinnati who calls himself the "Jolly Codger." Housebound, he uses the computer as his ticket to the outside world.

During Sarah's camp break, Fishalow picked up her daughter, and the two drove to Ohio to have dinner with the doctor and his wife.

Fishalow is hardly ever without a computer and carries a laptop wherever she goes. Her students send her occasional messages, and from time to time she advises "Ringo," a University of Pennsylvania student.

This month, the Fishalows will be in New York for a meeting and a chance to meet another electronic pen pal who is a teacher and housewife. She and her husband are coming into the city from Providence, R.I.

"I really value the friends I have made," Fishalow says, heading for the family room and a session on her computer. "They have been a great support group for me and have given me some really wonderful advice when I have needed it."

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If you are thinking about venturing online there are many avenues from which to choose. To name a few: CompuServe, America Online, Prodigy, Delphi, GEnie or Apple's e-World.

Once you choose a program and find a "chat room" you are comfortable with, introduce yourself in a friendly way, advises expert Terry Biener, whose Cupcake's CB Society Column for CompuServe chronicles online personalities and offline parties.

"Ask for introductions to other people. I've met so many of my friends online," Biener adds.

In making friends over the computer use common sense and good judgment. Don't reveal your deepest secrets or give out your phone number. If you arrange a meeting, do so in a public place.