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LIFE IN CYBERSPACE / When Virtual Pals Become Real Pests

THE WORLD WIDE WEB offers the possibility of

interconnectivity, the opportunity to make exciting, intimate online

relationships with people who, when you meet them in real life, you really,

really hate.

I thought I had found a community in the newsgroup Alt.Fan.Dave_Barry,

where everyone was a "guy," grammar was important and flaming newbies was the

main entertainment. I was very happy there. It felt real-we even gossiped

behind each other's backs on AOL's Instant Messenger.

I instant-messaged with some of the young people in the group, flattered to

think kids in their late teens would want to chat with me, in my early 40s,

late into the night, when thoughts and keyboards loosen up.

Two of the kids mentioned that they were going to meet and visit some of

the other people they had met online, and that they would like to come to New

York where I and two other news groupies lived. But they needed a place to stay.

As I would do with any other friend, knowing them to be smart and funny and

not involved in illegal activities, I invited them into my home, saying it

wasn't much, but they could always sleep on the floor.

What I hadn't realized about virtual communities is how important little

things are in person. Things such as generational differences do matter, at

least at my age.

The day came when they were supposed to arrive, but they hadn't bothered to

tell me just which bus they would be arriving on or from which town. I guessed

it was Boston, which I knew was the nearest big city. One of their mothers

called my husband's office to tell us the boys had missed the bus and would be

on the next one (which was when, exactly?) and all of a sudden I began to

wonder what I had gotten myself into.

I wandered randomly around the bus station, checking all the arrivals from

the Northeast, holding my hand-made sign with their names on it and peering

perhaps overattentively into strangers' faces, which made some of them move

away quickly. I had seen pictures of them, and they had watched my Webcam, so I

figured we had at least a vague idea of what the others looked like. Two hours

after I got there, they stumbled off a bus from Boston, and I found them.

They were awful.

When I suggested they make themselves at home, I didn't mean literally. One

left his suitcase in the middle of the living room floor. When I asked him to

move it, he said it was convenient for him that way.

While I was instant-messaging some of our mutual acquaintances to let them

know the kids had arrived, they grabbed my computer mouse out of my hand to

click and chat with my friends themselves.

They used my telephone to talk for hours with the other newsgroup friends

in New York.

They put their feet on the furniture.

My children considered them loser dweebs and resented giving them their

beds for two nights.

They were loud, they were thoughtless and they hardly paid any attention to

me. I sent them down the street to Coney Island the first day, but they stayed

too long and I worried about them. The next day I took them to the Empire

State Building. On the way down the elevator, I was trying hard to get into the

spirit of things, and got into a fit of the giggles.

They looked at me the way my children do when I embarrass them in public.

One thing redeemed their generation during their visit. While they were

here, my son crashed my computer by trying to install some new software. The

computer still booted but wouldn't go past BIOS. One of the kids was an

honest-to-goodness technical-support person for an Internet service provider.

He and my oldest son worked together to get the computer up and running again.

Nonetheless, my family and I were thrilled to see them leave. They didn't

say thank you.

Yet even as I write this, I have instant messenger on, in case one of them

happens by and wants to chat. Because, well, they're smart and funny. And

they're hundreds of miles away.


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