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Signing on for a Web romance Internet: Rather than go looking for love in all the wrong chat rooms, just find yourself a friend.

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The new film "You've Got Mail" suggests you can find the love of your life in an online chat room. But, in reality, you probably won't find a Meg Ryan or a Tom Hanks waiting there. And if you're not careful, you could find yourself in trouble.

Enter a chat room with friendship as your objective, though, and you just might be pleasantly surprised. I've made many good friends this way -- one of whom has changed my life.

I've been a member of America Online almost since the beginning. When I joined in the fall of 1993, the service was in its infancy; the 200,000 or so members were largely computer-oriented. We were pioneers in this new form of communication.

Most of these pioneers, it turned out, were men. As a woman in this small community, I was sought after. It was intoxicating. I could enter a chat room of 23 people and immediately become the center of attention. Because I was gregarious -- and a quick and fast-witted typist -- it seemed all the men wanted to talk to me.

Despite my attempts to tell them otherwise, they all assumed I was cover-girl gorgeous.

"I'm thoroughly average," I'd tell them.

"Not you!" they'd say.

"Yes," I'd say. "If you passed me on the street, you wouldn't notice me."

"You're just being modest. (pause) I like that about you."

With all the male attention, I inevitably made mistakes. One night, my brother and I were in a chat room with 21 strangers.

"Hey, Jo," he said, "how's your job at The Sun going?"

I told him about something I was working on. But behind the scenes, men in the chat room were sending my brother private messages, asking what I was really like. As we flirted in the chat room, he told those who asked that I loved roses.

Later that week, flowers arrived at work. Even though I'd been careful never to reveal my last name on AOL, someone in the chat room had called The Sun and conned a co-worker into giving out my last name. With that, he could get my home phone number. Using a reverse directory, he knew where I lived. He called me and told me he planned to visit.

Although he backed off when I told him I wasn't interested, I learned a valuable lesson. Online, you never know who is watching what you are saying. I deleted the online "profile" AOL offers users, deciding to stop giving access to my real first name, my city and my occupation.

Mystery man

Now I was savvy. No one would find out more about me than I was willing to tell. I couldn't be fooled by cyber-fakers, the guys who neglected to tell you that they were a) married; b) unemployed; c) stalkers; or d) ugly as homemade sin.

But just when I was sure I was too smart to be burned again, a match struck tinder.

John was a charmer. He had a great sense of humor and showed concern and compassion for people. We began e-mailing, and he told me he was caring for a friend who was dying of AIDS.

He also told me about psychotic women online who had become fixated on him. He told me that I was different, that I was the one woman he wanted to talk with. I was elated, because I wanted to know more about him.

Soon, he was sending me a half-dozen e-mails a day. They didn't start out as love letters, but that's what they turned into after a short while. I was honored that he wanted to share his innermost feelings with me. I felt loved.

He called and talked for hours, and our bond grew. Naturally, I wanted to meet John; I needed to find out if the feelings I was beginning to have could survive in real life. But there was always a reason why we couldn't meet: his job put him on call on many weekends; he had work to do around the house; his friend with AIDS couldn't be left with anyone else.

Finally, after about five months, I told him I couldn't proceed further with our friendship without meeting him in person.

We broke off contact for four months. Then he started sending me messages again, saying how sorry he was and that he was ready to be completely forthcoming -- if only I would take him back.

Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.

He admitted he had misled me. When we'd begun e-mailing, he'd been married, he said; now he was divorced. He'd also neglected to tell me he had a daughter. And in the four months since we'd stopped talking, he said, he had been dating someone. But now he would break things off with her.

Maybe this is how it works, I thought. Maybe now that he's come clean, we can really get to know each another and see if this relationship can work.

We agreed that it was time to meet. He just had to see this other woman once more to officially break things off. "Don't worry," he said. "I love you. You are the one I want to spend the rest of my life with."

Two days later, he was engaged to the other woman. I found out when a mutual friend sent out a group e-mail announcement of congratulations. "You misunderstood," John told me when I confronted him. "Nothing online is real."

Talk about a blast of cold air.

Belatedly, I began talking with other people who knew John online, and found out I was far from alone in my misunderstanding. By our calculations, he was saying the same thing to six women at one time. While we marveled at his organizational skills, we quickly realized that this guy was a pathological liar. He'd even sent some of the same touching e-mails to all of us.

For a long time after that, I retreated online. I didn't open up to anyone; didn't even flirt.

No preconceptions

Once I'd decided to stop looking for love online, I began developing some pretty good friendships. Several of us became "regulars" in an AOL chat room, sharing life's blessings -- births and marriages -- and sadnesses -- a friend's death in a car accident. Sometimes we'd meet for weekends at one home or another, some people flying cross-country for the events.

I quickly learned that even if someone is fun online, he or she may be more of a social misfit in person. Many people use their keyboards to become a bolder, funnier versions.

There are just some things that you can't and won't find out about someone online. And that can be a good thing. Prejudice can be checked at the door. You have no way of knowing someone's skin color, weight, accent or disabilities.

I remember how shocked I was that an online friend who was so supportive to me, so quick with a joke, was suffering from Lou Gehrig's disease. When I met him in person, he could barely speak. Yet so many times he'd cheered me up.

These real-life connections reaffirmed my faith in human nature, and in friendships developed on AOL. Like the one I began developing with Rick Parker, a new buddy across the country in California.

At first, Rick and I just kidded around. We enjoyed puns, teasing and sarcasm. No flirting, just fun. We exchanged pictures. "You're adorable," I said, looking at a photo of someone who looked maybe 21. "How old are you?"

"I'm 27," he said. "How old are you?"

"34."

We decided right then that we could never get involved. The age difference was too great. So was the distance between our cities. Now we could tell one another everything!

He interpreted men for me. I'd come home from dates and say, "He said this, but what does that mean?"

I would tell him how to pick up women.

"Never wear a watch," I instructed.

"Huh?"

"That way you can go up to any woman and ask her if she has the time. It's a non-threatening opening line."

We shared our few successes and our more numerous failures with the opposite sex. We talked about our values and feelings and aspirations. We could be completely honest, because we didn't have to worry about how the other person would react.

Soon we were talking on the phone every night before we went to sleep.

We finally met when he decided to vacation on the East Coast to visit relatives and friends. We arranged to meet at dinner with friends each of us had met in person before.

I arrived first and waited outside for the rest of the group. When Rick walked up, I recognized him right away. We hugged and then stepped back.

I couldn't breathe. This was Rick, my friend. I couldn't be attracted to him this way. I had to walk away from him for a moment, just to catch my breath. How was I going to get through his visit when he has this effect on me?

Soon, though, I realized that he had the same feelings. The friendship we'd cultivated for months turned romantic. In many ways, I knew him better than any man I'd ever dated before, because we'd spent so much time opening up online and on the phone.

We spent five days together. The last night, I told him, "I do not want a long-distance relationship."

"I don't either," he said, and I knew the next words out of his mouth would be: "But let's enjoy the time we have left."

Instead, he said: "I'll move."

I'd known he was planning to leave Los Angeles to go back to school and get a teaching degree. But this was a shock. And I was elated.

Some of our friends and relatives were surprised at the suddenness of our decision, but to us it made perfect sense. We were already good friends and had learned so much about each other. Falling in love was a bonus.

Can you find love online?

On Oct. 10, 1999, Rick and I will prove that you can. That's our wedding day.

Do's and don'ts of online romance

DON'T give out too much information too soon. Information such as your full name, address, place of employment and phone number should be revealed only after you have established some level of trust.

DO get to know the other person. Talk with other people online who have met the person. But keep in mind that the person offering insight could be the same person -- using another screen name.

DON'T make assumptions about the person -- you are likely to be disappointed. Online, you can't know anything about the other person for sure. Even if you've been sent a photo, you have no way of verifying it's for real.

DO have realistic expectations. Your online penpal is unlikely to be a model, and it's unlikely you'll fall in love at first sight. Whatever rapport you have online, you could still clash in person.

DON'T meet in private. If you decide to meet, do it in public. If your online friend is visiting, make arrangements for him or her to stay at a hotel. Until you've actually met, you don't want them to even know where you live.

Pub Date: 12/22/98

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