ATLANTA — ATLANTA -- Last year Kennesaw, Ga., native Tommy Williams, a sometime country singer, sat down at his computer and wrote to his new love. Though they'd never met, they'd exchanged scores of cathode-ray letters, hers signed "Judith of the Valley," his signed "The Seeker."
"If you are as serious as I about our love and life, may I have your typing hand please? And a paper clip?" he tapped on his keyboard.
A world away, near Sacramento, Calif., Judy Lewis lifted her hand, and followed her suitor's instructions: "Now modify the paper clip . . . and pretend I am putting it on your finger."
Suddenly their three-day, on-line dalliance had become serious. They dropped the pen names. Then, after a few days and much more electronic mail, Mr. Williams popped the question. "When our day does finally arrive," he typed, "will you marry me? I am so serious."
The waiting was excruciating. Five hours later, her one-word answer flashed on his screen:
Sweet talk such as this -- and a variety of other electronic mail -- flies around this country at a rate of about 100 million messages a day.
While most of the exchanges between an estimated 20 million electronic correspondents in the United States are strictly office-memo material and decidedly less glamorous than Mr. Williams' marriage proposal via modem, about 4 million use e-mail for personal communication, according to Mike Cavanagh, executive director of the Electronic Mail Association.
On-line networks such as Prodigy and CompuServe, geared toward the private consumer, make it possible for average PC-equipped Americans to link up with friends around the world.
"Letter writing, as we all despair, has gone the way of the buffalo," says Jim Galambos, Prodigy's director of interactive applications. Its replacement, he says, is e-mail.
Electronic scriveners just see it as a great new way to chat, unhampered by the cost of long-distance telephone calls, unhindered by the glacial pace of that paper stuff they call "snail mail."
CompuServe public relations executive Sharon Magee of Atlanta says: "You can't be chatty using a fax, and a lot of times with people's busy schedules, a phone call is an interruption. E-mail allows you to respond to questions and pursue conversations when it's convenient to do so."
This surely applies to Judy Lewis and Tommy Williams, the bicoastal couple who pledged their troth electronically, and were married last November. They met through Prodigy's "Lost Romantics" bulletin board, ostensibly a craft board for writers that had become more of a chat outlet. Neither was looking for a mate: He was twice divorced; she was married and the mother of three.
Mr. Williams, a 42-year-old electronics technician, saw the Lost Romantics board as a "nice, fun way to have a little daydream. . . . You can write there, talk to girls, have a good time, and it will be pretty safe -- nothing's going to happen."
For "Judith of the Valley," Prodigy offered a diversion from a troubled marriage, though "I wasn't looking to fall in love at all -- what happened to me was the biggest surprise I've ever had," she says.