Transcript

66:

Tales from the Net
Transcript

Originally aired 06.06.1997

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Full audio: http://tal.fm/66

Prologue.

Boy

From PRI, Public Radio International--

Woman

From PRI, Public Radio--

Man

From PRI--

Boy

Public Radio International--

Woman

Public Radio--

Man

Public--

Woman

Radio international.

Man

--radio international.

Woman

One more time.

Ira Glass

From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Well, a few weeks ago, we invited you to send us your stories of life on the internet, to send unusual or amusing email exchanges, interesting things you've found in Usenet groups or on web pages. Hundreds of people responded. I recorded interviews with some of them and invited the ones who live here in Chicago to Chicago's Museum of Contemporary Art for a show. Today on our program, what happened when all the tapes and readings and people were gathered onstage in the museum's theater.

Act 1.

Mary

And I came across this site that I thought was amazing. It was the most cutting-edge, thought-provoking site I'd ever seen. And so I was examining it, checking it out. And I realized that this guy was my age. And he worked at Microsoft. And that just blew me away, because I'm a student. I can barely afford coffee in the morning. And here, this guy worked at Microsoft.

I ended up emailing him, just to tell him how much I liked his site and how amazing I thought it was. And he wrote back. And that went on for about four or five days. We just kept writing back and forth, really personal stuff, too, not just computer geek stuff.

Ira Glass

What is the brave new world of the internet? I would argue that one main difference between regular life and life on the net is that you can meet a stranger and get to know them intimately, much faster on the net than you can anywhere else. Well, for a week, Mary and this guy right each other several times a day, long, personal emails. Then they agreed to meet in person at a coffee shop on Valentine's Day.

Mary

I was nervous before we met, because I was worried that he wouldn't find me as interesting in real life. So we met for coffee. We ended up spending the next 12 hours together. There wasn't really a turning point until a few days later. We had continued to see each other. And one night, we ended up going out to his office at Microsoft. It was about midnight, and nobody was there. And we were hanging out. And one thing led to another, and all of a sudden, we were making out.

Ira Glass

And?

Mary

It was crazy.

Ira Glass

And you were glad, though, because you were liking him.

Mary

Oh, yeah. Yeah. It wasn't a bad thing. But it was awkward, because it was my first time. I had never really done that with anybody before.

Ira Glass

It was your very first time actually having sex with somebody?

Mary

Right. Well, no, it was my first time kissing anybody.

Ira Glass

Kissing anybody at all?

Mary

Yeah.

Ira Glass

Because you hadn't had a high school boyfriend who you would do that with?

Mary

No, no. I was a real big loner in high school. I didn't get out much.

Ira Glass

So it was your first time just making out with somebody, and it was at Microsoft.

Mary

Yeah. And so it made it all the more surreal, I think. It was just weird for me to think that, here's this guy I met a little over a week ago by chance on the internet. And here we are at his office, doing this.

And then after that, I barely heard from him. He told me that he didn't want a relationship right now, that he wanted to wait. He kept using the term, he wanted to make his first million before he had a relationship with somebody.

Ira Glass

His first million?

Mary

Yes.

Ira Glass

For all the hype about the revolutionary changes the internet is going to bring us, what's striking about this particular story is how much of it could have happened without computers at all. All across America, teenage boys kiss young women on a date or two, then freak out and withdraw. All the computer adds is an air of mystery and intimacy and some exotic stage props for the drama. Otherwise, the lines and the moves are very, very old.

Mary

After the fact, after the night at his office down there at Microsoft, I noticed, boy, he really was feeding me some lines there.

Ira Glass

Really?

Mary

Yeah.

Ira Glass

Like what else?

Mary

He actually was going to set me up with a copy of Office 97. He never did.

Ira Glass

The cad. At what point in the whole interaction did he promise you the Office 97, the free software?

Mary

Actually, the first night we met.

Ira Glass

Did you just think, he's feeding me a lot of soup?

Mary

No. I thought it was cool, because I'd heard some things about Office 97. I thought, wow, I'd like to have that.

Ira Glass

Now, I'm sure you can only look back on the incredible naivete. Some young man is prowling the streets of Seattle, walking through the U District, telling women--

Mary

"Got your free software."

Ira Glass

Well, the question we pose in this hour is, what is happening on the internet? And are there things happening on the net that never would have happened without it? Over the past few weeks, we've advertised in cities around the country, inviting radio listeners to send us samples of their own emails, samples of things they've found on the net that they thought were especially interesting or amusing. We have advertised here in Chicago, asking people to come here today, to the museum of contemporary art, with those samples. And over the next hour, we'll hear from people here and people around the country, an unscientific sampling of what's going on on the net. Stay with us.

My co-host for today's show is David Hauptschein. Welcome, David. David is a playwright and novelist. His played "Trance" won the Fringe First Award at the Edinburgh Theatre Festival and was produced for the Brighton Arts Festival. His play "The Persecution of Arnold Petch" premiered this year at Red Orchid Theater here in Chicago. And years ago, David started having these shows that he called "letter shows," where he invited people onstage to bring their mail to a theater and read it, just as kind of a big open mic. And we're adapting the format of those shows to the electronic media today. David, why don't you explain the rules of how one of these shows goes.

David Hauptschein

OK. This is a show with many, many rules. That's why we have two hosts up here. Ira does half of them, and I do the other half. The first rule is the time rule. These are egg timers. These are mechanical devices that do not exist in cyberspace. They are crude. They're holding at approximately four minutes. And that's what everybody will have when they're presenting.

Ira Glass

Let's give a sample ding, so people know what to expect.

David Hauptschein

Oh, yeah. Sample ding. Well, these different dings. But we're going to start with this one here. This is your basic [DING]. So when you hear that, you must stop mid-syllable and just exit the stage, unless one of us starts talking to you or something. So we're going to begin with Joe Fosco. In preparation for this show, we spent many hours surfing the net together and finding files that we thought were interesting. And Joe's going to come up and read some. Wait a minute, Joe, let me get this timer going, here. I've got to put these other ones in different places.

Joe Fosco

This one I'm going to read now is a website of this guy who's building an aluminum ball, ball of aluminum foil. And he went into quite a bit of detail about this ball. He says, "I don't remember exactly how the ball began, but it is a sphere, composed entirely of aluminum foil of various varieties. It is mostly candy wrappers with a few bits of foil and other food items mixed in. So far, the best finish coat is York Peppermint Pattie wrappers. Other foil is fine, but a coat of Peppermint Pattie wrappers is necessary to keep it on. Gum wrappers also tend to have their quality. But they are far too difficult to peel, considering the minimal bulk they have. Gum wrappers do make a good finish coat on top of Peppermint Pattie wrappers for show. Some items, such as Hershey's Miniatures, which look like they might be good candidates for foil, aren't. The ball is more impressive in person than this page can hope to depict."

Ira Glass

There's a picture of the ball.

Joe Fosco

Oh, there is, if you can see it. And then, he has this diary of its growth. It starts back in January. And he says, "We've gotten an electric postage scale in the office. It reads one more digit of precision, so we now have a weight of 3.9 ounces. I have done the math to compute the density of the ball. Curiously, it is much lower than that of solid aluminum. I have a hard time believing that the ball is less than half aluminum by mass, so I invite you to let me know if there are any errors in my computations. I expected that the density would be less than that of solid aluminum because of a small amount of air between layers of the foil, the adhesive coatings, inks, and small quantities of chocolate, grease, and other leftovers from the food items that the wrappers were originally used to package. I wouldn't have been too surprised by 5 or even 10% difference. But I find the actual results obtained a little difficult to believe."

David Hauptschein

I have a question for you, Joe. Do you believe that fellow would be making that ball if it wasn't for the internet?

Joe Fosco

I think so.

David Hauptschein

See, I think that one of the discussions we've been having the past couple of weeks is, is the internet unique in any way? And I think that it is in the sense that people now know they have potentially millions of--

Ira Glass

Readers.

David Hauptschein

--readers. Whereas before, a guy would make a silver ball. He'd make a silver ball and put it in his desk, and no one would know about it.

Joe Fosco

The other interesting thing is, on this, he has links to other sites that are making aluminum foil balls, and someone also who's making a rubber band ball.

David Hauptschein

But I think, actually, the idea that he might get some notoriety out of his ball has spurred him on to further-- at least, maybe it would've been a mediocre ball. I think he's working it out to make the ultimate ball. All right. Thank you, Joe.

Ira Glass

Our next reader, Stacy.

David Hauptschein

Oh, this is Stacy.

Stacy

Do I just start?

David Hauptschein

You can just start.

Ira Glass

Tell us anything you think we need to know, or just start right in.

David Hauptschein

I'm just going to set the timer for four minutes.

Stacy

OK. A former friend of mine from high school is currently living with her husband and son in England. And every three weeks or so, she sends out what I call a broadcast email. And she sends it to what has now become 56 email addresses. I'm going to read one of the broadcast emails. But before I do, I think I should make two notes. One is that she refers to her husband as "Bobo" or "Bo." And she refers to her son as "Boo" because she named him after Boo Radley in To Kill a Mockingbird.

David Hauptschein

That's a strange choice.

Stacy

Granted, that is his nickname. So she also rates her adventures with "paws," like bear paws. And for example, once, after visiting the Stratford on Avon, she said, "Three paws for Shakespeareville." So here's the first one that I ever received.

"Hi. Baby Boo had his first day in London this weekend. We went to the British Museum, a quick stop to Harod's, and really quick stops to Big Ben and Westminster Abbey to take pictures. We bought a six-foot diameter beach towel that I lay out for Boo to play on. I told him that it's his boundary, and if he crawls off it, he'll get electrocuted from the wires. You know, like those dog training things. Well, he does a good job of keeping me on my feet now. Before, I had to watch him every second. Now, I have to watch him every millisecond."

Ira Glass

You know what this is like? It's like one of those Christmas letters. How often does she--

Stacy

Exactly. But this comes-- I think I've received these over the last year. And these come fairly regularly, like once a month.

Ira Glass

And for you, as somebody who knows her, when you read these, do you feel a sense of, yes, I must know, or is it, oh, no?

Stacy

Well, actually, what's really interesting is that she and I have grown apart. And I didn't really quite know how to end the relationship. But these emails have actually given me some closure, because--

Ira Glass

Because now, you never have to say anything.

Stacy

I don't say anything. It used to-- [DING]

Ira Glass

Keep going. Finish your thought.

Stacy

Oh, ok. And I never have to say anything. I never respond to them. But she continues to send them to me, and I have a lot of fun reading them. And before, I used to feel really guilty. Like I wouldn't respond to her letters or I wouldn't be a good friend. But now, I feel like, OK, well, we're just so different.

Ira Glass

I don't want to be a good friend.

Stacy

Right, right.

Ira Glass

Once a month, it comes to you in a vision.

Stacy

Right. And then I just read it. And actually-- I'm really horrible, and I can't believe I'm going to admit this-- but I actually send it out to two of my other friends, who also-- [LAUGHTER] I forward it to two other friends, who are sitting out there. And they read it and comment back to me. I can't believe I'm saying this.

Ira Glass

Well, she doesn't listen to the radio, does she?

Stacy

My friends and I sat and thought about it. And we thought, well, I don't think she listens to NPR.

Ira Glass

Thank you.

Well, for our next one, I thought we'd do one that people contacted us when we advertised around the country for things going on on the net. And somebody notified us about this one web page. We were searching for people who were having experiences on the net they would never have otherwise. And this particular page was made by woman named Jenny Ringley, a senior at Dickinson College in Pennsylvania. Like a lot of people, she created her own little home page on the World Wide Web.

Jenny Ringley

There's the regular part of my page, I guess you would say, with information about me, the music I like, things like that, like everybody has on their page. The one item that has become extremely popular, though, is the JenniCam. And it's just a camera that sits in my room and takes a picture every three minutes and uploads it. So every three minutes, you can find out what fascinating thing I'm doing in my room.

Ira Glass

The JenniCam is on seven days a week, 24 hours a day. And the number of people who want to see what fascinating thing is going on in a college girl's dorm room each day?

Jenny Ringley

People, I'm not sure. But as far as number of hits go, we get over 500,000 hits a day.

Ira Glass

A half million hits, every single day. And what do people see?

Jenny Ringley

Nothing, really. I write email, I sleep, I have friends over. You can watch my hedgehog when I'm not in the room. Things like that. Pretty much just regular college life, as far as I know.

Ira Glass

Our associate producer tuned in to your page, just to kind of see what was going on. And for about a half an hour, she witnessed you on the phone. Every three minutes, there'd be another picture of you in a different position, on the telephone.

Jenny Ringley

I talk on the phone a lot.

Ira Glass

In a way, it's hard to think of anything more banal than seeing a college student's dorm room.

Jenny Ringley

I would have to agree. I would absolutely agree. I don't do anything that's that interesting. I don't have company very often. I don't do anything more interesting, really, than talk on the phone, watch TV, and sleep.

Ira Glass

Let me ask you to talk about the nudity.

Jenny Ringley

Well, whenever I'm nude in my room, I'm nude on the JenniCam.

Ira Glass

But, you know, when I think about how often somebody is nude in the course of a day, it's really not very long.

Jenny Ringley

Well, maybe I'm not an average person. But I figure when I'm alone, who really cares? I sleep naked, and I get changed. And when I get out of the shower, I'm all wet. There's no hurry to put on clothes.

Ira Glass

Explain what the thrill is about being naked in front of a computer camera.

Jenny Ringley

Actually, with the camera there, I don't think about it much. So whenever I'm normally naked in my room, that's when I would be on the camera. It really doesn't affect me in much of a big way, I would say.

Ira Glass

But wait. You're saying you're being naked in front of potentially a half million people, and it means nothing to you?

Jenny Ringley

I think the camera would be a lot less interesting if I paid that much attention to it. It would be more of a staged show. And you can go see a staged show anywhere. I think the whole appeal of the camera is that it is whatever is normally going on in my room. And with it having been up for a year and a half now, I'm pretty accustomed to it being there. It doesn't affect me much, I would say.

Ira Glass

Have there been any moments over the last two years where you were sort of sorry that the camera was in the dorm room?

Jenny Ringley

Actually, it goes sort of the opposite way. Whenever I go home for breaks, for spring break or something like that, I'm always sad to be away from the camera. It's really a different feeling. Whenever I'm in the room and the camera is broken for some reason, my room feels totally different. It's like I'm completely alone. I usually prefer the camera be there. And I'm sad when it's off as opposed to wishing it weren't there.

Ira Glass

Because you don't feel alone when it's on.

Jenny Ringley

Right. Even though there's nobody actually there with me, even though I'm still alone, even if there's nobody watching the camera from the other end, it's just comforting to know that there is somebody metaphorically out there.

Ira Glass

In your view, why are so many people checking out the site each day?

Jenny Ringley

A lot of the people, it's totally hoping to find me getting out of the shower, getting dressed for bed, things like that. It's hoping to find the nudity. But I get lots of email from people who say that it's just nice, when they're alone in their office, to know that there's somebody else out there, somebody else that is doing nothing more interesting than what they're doing at the same time. It's like having a little virtual friend.

Ira Glass

Now, at some point in the two years, you've probably had somebody over in the dorm room to mess around.

Jenny Ringley

Sure.

Ira Glass

And?

Jenny Ringley

At that point, it goes on the other person's comfortability. I have no problem doing that. And that's the whole point of the camera, is that it's whatever I'm doing. When I went into this, I understood that in order to make it really work, it would have to be no matter what I was doing. But I can't really enforce that on people who are visiting me. So if the other person is uncomfortable, then the camera is turned off or it points to a different part of the room.

Ira Glass

And generally, has the other person been uncomfortable?

Jenny Ringley

Yes. Yes.

Ira Glass

Was there ever a time that you actually had somebody over where you actually kept the camera on the two of you?

Jenny Ringley

Yes, in fact. And the funny thing is that it never actually was broadcast, because the number of people suddenly reloading on the server ended up crashing the computer that posted the JenniCam at the time.

Ira Glass

Wow.

Jenny Ringley

So even though we were there and the camera was on, the server was crashed by the number of people wanting to see.

Ira Glass

What's your impression of who these people are?

Jenny Ringley

Oh, I don't know. Mostly men. It's almost exclusively men. I get about 700 emails a day. And of that number, maybe 10 are from women.

Ira Glass

You get 700 emails a day?

Jenny Ringley

Right.

Ira Glass

What are people saying to you?

Jenny Ringley

Well, a lot of those are entries to a contest on my web page called "Name That Curve," where, once a week, I put up a new picture of some closeup shot of a part of my body, and people guess what it is. So I would say 300 or so of that number are "Name That Curve" entries. The rest of them are people saying either, "I saw your web page. I like your page," or "Can I call you?" Or "Can you send me private, special pictures?" It really, really ranges.

Ira Glass

Jenny says she spends five to six hours a day answering email. And when I talked to her, on the one hand, there seemed to be something completely innocent in what she was doing, putting herself out there and not really caring who sees. And if you press her about her own exhibitionism, she'll tell you over and over, "Oh, no, no, no. It's not about exhibitionism. It's an experiment in letting people view a person's entire life without editing." The one thing that she's gotten on the internet that she could never have gotten so easily any other way is she's famous within a small circle. It's a small, particular kind of thing.

Jenny Ringley

I do get a fair number at this point of requests for autographed pictures and people wanting to buy my hair and my clothing, things like that.

Ira Glass

What?

Jenny Ringley

It's pretty scary. Well, one time, I was caught on camera actually trimming my bangs, because if you're going to do that, it's cheaper. And all of a sudden, I got 40 emails from people saying, "Are you going to do anything with that hair? Can I buy it from you?"

Ira Glass

And what did you make of that?

Jenny Ringley

Well, I don't know. It's kind of scary. I do meet people from time to time. Somebody'll say, "I'm passing through the area. Do you think I could meet you?"

Ira Glass

And you say?

Jenny Ringley

I actually have a pretty good knack for getting a good feeling about people right off the bat. So sometimes I say no. Sometimes I say yes. I've had dinner with, oh, probably a dozen people from the JenniCam.

Ira Glass

And has that been nice?

Jenny Ringley

I had one person who had a hard time taking no for an answer, even after I made it abundantly clear I wasn't interested.

Ira Glass

Really, that's kind of creepy.

Jenny Ringley

It is, kind of. I've had a fair number of improper passes at the end of the evening. But it stays at a pass.

Ira Glass

If there were a cable channel that would just have a camera on in your room, with no sound, 24 hours a day, do you think you'd get a half million viewers?

Jenny Ringley

I don't think so. I don't think I would, because if you have the TV, you have other things you can watch. I think it would still be popular. But I think at that point, it would be a lot less interesting, because people can do this from their offices. At work, if they have internet usage that's not monitored from work, you can just put it on and leave it on in the background while you're doing whatever else on your computer.

Ira Glass

Jenny Ringley has just graduated from college. She's moved to another city, where she's gotten a job designing web pages for a big national magazine.

Coming up, other tales from the net. That's in a minute when our program continues.

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Most weeks in our program, we choose a theme, bring you a variety of different kinds of stories on that theme. But this week, we are trying something different. We're broadcasting from the Museum of Contemporary Art, here in Chicago, where we're taking what geologists might call a core sample of things happening on the internet, a very unscientific sample. How are people using the net? What is happening on the net that is not happening anywhere else or has not happened anywhere else?

Over the last few weeks, we have advertised, asking people to come here today with things they have found on the net, including their own email exchanges. People from around the country are joining by telephone. My co-host today is playwright David Hauptschein, who's conducted these kinds of events in the past onstage here in Chicago. Welcome back, David.

David Hauptschein

Thank you.

Ira Glass

Well, now, this example of people's lives changed by the internet. Eileen and Fred Kiefer live outside Columbus, Ohio. They are septuagenarians with seven kids and 13 grandkids.

Eileen Kiefer

OK, well, when we first got our email going on our computer, I sent a message to our son in Milwaukee, whose address was K-I-E-F-F.

Ira Glass

K-I-E-F-F.

Eileen Kiefer

Yeah. But it was my first time to use it, and I left one of the F's off.

Ira Glass

Her email was a chatty email about everything going on in the family, signed, "Love, Mom."

Eileen Kiefer

So I got back a letter from someone whose address was K-I-E-F. And he said, "I enjoyed this letter, but I don't think you meant it for me." So then, I wrote back and said thanks, and explained how I'd make the mistake. And he wrote back. And we've been writing now for, it'll be two years this month.

Ira Glass

The man, the couple, actually, who got her email were Kiefer and Galen Mitchell in Portland, Oregon. He works at Tandy and does a radio show out there. And when he got Mrs. Kiefer's email in his account, the thing that actually got to him was that she signed it, "Love, Mom." His own mother had just died two months before. His father had been dead for years. Mrs. Kiefer said she never intended or wanted to have a long-term email friendship.

Eileen Kiefer

It seems like we had nothing in common going in-- the age difference, and they had no children. And they're Mormons, and we're Catholics. It seemed like there wasn't a whole lot that we had to talk about. But we never have any trouble.

At first, we were writing every day. We were both so excited about this. And now, we're usually in touch at least once a week. And we visited. And he's in Oregon. We're in Ohio. Visited in Portland last year and spent a couple days with him and had a wonderful time. And they're, like, 30 years younger than we are. So we've become Mom and Dad. And we've adopted them. They call them our illegally adopted children. And in December, when I had a serious operation, he was on the phone every night just like the rest of our kids. So he's really become one of our kids.

Ira Glass

So what in the world was it in those first emails they sent two years ago? What could people possibly say to create a bond like that?

Eileen Kiefer

Oh, I don't remember. I just remember indicating that I was 70. So I didn't want anybody to think we were going to have this big romance or anything. Because, you know, you read these stories about people doing weird things with people on the internet. We never had that problem. We have seven children. And all of them have email except one. And the ones out of town we hear from a couple times a week. One of our daughters we hear from almost daily.

Ira Glass

Now, did you have as much contact with them before email?

Eileen Kiefer

Oh, no. No, we would talk on the phone maybe once a month. And it was always, "How are you?" And you never really were part of their lives that way. Two of our children live in Boston. And while we were always close, we weren't communicating very often.

Ira Glass

So email has really brought you all closer together.

Eileen Kiefer

Oh, it's wonderful. I keep trying to talk everybody I know into it if their children have access to a computer. It's changed our lives a lot. It's just changed our lives. I wouldn't think of not checking the computer first thing in the morning to see who's writing.

Ira Glass

Eileen Kiefer in Dublin, Ohio.

Another reader?

David Hauptschein

You have one there?

Ira Glass

Sure, plenty.

David Hauptschein

OK, let's go with another reader.

Ira Glass

Our next reader participant, Steve Sedin.

David Hauptschein

Steve Sedin.

Steve Sedin

I came across a Usenet group called alt.amazonwomen.admirers. And this is a short dialogue between two guys.

Guy one: "I was just talking with someone. And we started thinking about a couple of girls we know that used to give us piggyback rides. Here's an interesting thought. One girl was, like, 5'2", weighed 110 pounds. She wasn't a great athlete and didn't have a lot of muscle, and she was able to give me piggyback rides with ease, while I weigh close to 200 pounds. So with that thought in mind, I'm curious to know, assuming you believe that piggyback rides are the easiest way to lift a person, which they are, how much weight would you guess some fitness and body building women could lift piggyback? I mean, if they can lift 200-pound guys over their shoulders and press them overhead, just imagine how much they could lift piggyback. Any thoughts?"

So the response to that is, "Yeah, here's a thought. Where are the lift-a-200-pound-man-overhead-and-press-him women? Boy, would I ever like to see that. I mean, who cares about piggyback rides? A piggyback ride isn't a lift at all. The man just climbs on. And all the weight is supported by the bones of the legs, because the legs are already locked out. Not impressive, not sexy. But to see a woman militarily press a man, now, that's worth paying to see. My greatest thrill would be to see a tall, muscular woman pick up a tiny man under his armpits and dangle him in midair. Impossible, you say? Maybe. But consider this. In 1988, the women's weightlifting championships were dominated by young, teenage girls. I saw a 16-year-old Chinese girl snatch 165 pounds as though it were a feather. She cleaned and jerked 231 pounds without so much as making a face. She weighed 132 pounds. Try this, guys. Go to your garage and load up that old barbell with, say, 270 pounds. Try to dead-lift it. See how heavy it feels. Now, picture a cute, 17-year-old 99-pound pound Chinese girl take that same barbell and lift it all the way overhead in about five seconds." So the response to that is, "Yes, I agree. Now we're getting close to the real thing." Thank you.

[APPLAUSE]

Ira Glass

Our next reader, Dolores.

David Hauptschein

Dolores.

Dolores

OK, this is a romance story. I met this guy last fall. And he worked most of the week in another part of the country. He would fly out on Sunday night and come back on Thursday night. So our romance was conducted through the net. And because he was away so much, we talked or emailed back and forth every day.

And I don't know if other people have had this experience, but if you start going out with someone and you're writing them over the net, it's very exciting. You come home, and you turn on the computer, and it's one of the first things that you think about. And it really adds this element that, I don't know, I've never had before.

So anyway, we went out for about three or four months. And we fell in love. But eventually, we started to have problems. Our daily correspondence became more and more strained. And finally, I wrote him this email that I'm going to read to you.

"Dear Sam, I feel like I'm making you feel worse, and I can't bear that. I am so sorry. I think that you should have peace. And I pray for you. I pray for that for you every day. I think you should take some time and call me when you do feel more peace."

So this was very heartfelt. And I did think that he would write me back. And after about two and a half weeks, he hadn't written me. And this was a dramatic departure for us.

And so when we finally did talk, it was like Vietnam. There was about 36 hours of a intense meltdown. And I fired out five hysterical emails, which I won't read to you. And we broke up. And while we were breaking up, my computer crashed. And I lost all of my email. And so I lost all of this correspondence from him, which was 100 pages, easily. And I wrote him. And I told them about this. And he sent me two caches of folders, his mail and my mail.

Well, at that time, I didn't want to read through all of this. It was a little too painful. I just wanted it. I wanted to have it. So when I prepared for this show tonight, I decided to go back and read through it. And I discovered something, which was that he did email me back. I just never got it. And part of the hell-- I was in hell for those two or three weeks before we talked.

So this is what he emailed me that I discovered. It said, "Dolores, you are so good a person. I'm very proud to know you and have you in my life. I will take some time and get grounded, and then call you. Thanks for all your love and understanding." Well, I was flabbergasted. It took me several days to even wrap my mind around the fact that he had sent this. And it completely altered my experience of that time and of him. And I still can't quite assimilate it, really.

Ira Glass

Do you think it's possible that he faked it when he sent you the batch of emails back?

Dolores

Now, this is the question that every man I tell this story to asks me. It didn't occur to me. And he would have had to have gone through quite a bit of trouble to do it, because it is encoded with all of the information. I don't know. What do you think?

Ira Glass

I yield to your expertise here.

Dolores

Yeah. Yeah. OK,

Ira Glass

Thank you.

Our next reader, Sarah, is somebody who has a story for us.

Sarah

This involves a guy who picked out my photo in what we call the "MeetBook" for incoming freshmen. It has every freshman and a little bio data. And he liked me. But none of our friends knew each other, so he couldn't meet me. And what he ended up doing was obsessing about my photo and deciding, well, I can't just obsess about her photo. I'd like to know more about her as a person.

So he sent out this broadcast message to everybody in the dorm I lived in that was on the net at the time, asking what I was like. So all these strangers responded. And they just made stuff up. But it was very positive, because what happened was, he ended up writing me a letter on paper, using quotes about all the things that people had said about me, that I was cheerful and intelligent and had a good disposition. He decided I was a rare commodity. I should call him. And I was kind of cornered into calling him by my friends. But this is a story that went nowhere, because he was truly not someone I wanted to end up going out with.

Ira Glass

Do you think that the way that he decided to approach you was a tip-off that that might have been?

Sarah

Yeah, I have to admit that-- the first thing he said when I called him up-- because he was really nervous, and I really didn't care-- he said, "OK, we can get together. But not Friday night, because Friday night's the ping-pong tournament."

Ira Glass

Yeah, there's a sign right there.

David Hauptschein

Well, thank you for that, the rigmarole.

Ira Glass

Our next presenter, our next reader, Noel.

Noel

My name is Noel, and I'm diastematic. Anybody here know what that means? It means that I have a gap between my front two teeth. For those of you unfamiliar with this whole website gap-tooth thing, I built a website for gap-tooth people. So, yeah, idiotic. You want it, you've got it. But I'm in good company. 10% of America, including David Letterman, Lauren Hutton, Noam Chomsky, Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, Itzhak Perlman, Chaucer's Wife of Bath, Vince Lombardi, blah, blah, blah, all with two cleavage. I must admit, for better or for worse, yes, I'm the one who built this website. But the emphasis is humor.

In early November last year--

Ira Glass

Wait, humor verses what? Like attacks at people without gaps in their teeth? What would be other thing that you would do-- you would proselytize, try bring people over, encourage people to create gaps in their teeth?

Noel

Absolutely.

David Hauptschein

Are you working with any orthodontists?

Noel

This will hit on a lot of those themes. In the early November last year, I was watching a Bears-Packers game. And during the pregame ceremonies, the USPS, the post office, unveiled art for a new stamp, due this summer, featuring the late great Vince Lombardi, who was one of the greatest gappers ever to live. He was on a stamp, riding high atop the team in the throes of victory, smiling huge. But something was missing, Coach Lombardi's trademark gap-toothed grin. He had near-perfect pearly whites, and the gap was gone.

The next day, as a joke, I added a page to the gap-tooth website, protesting the post office's depiction of Lombardi as a cosmetically-altered hero. Who would Don King be if he were bald? Or Gorbachev without the Kool-Aid stain? Or Jimmy Durante without that nose?

So knowing that this was one small effort to have a little fun while making a point, knowing that this was the Web, the oddball media that gets no real merit for its content, I expected little to no attention. But then came Yahoo, which featured it as a weekly pick. The Washington Post had me on the phone and ran a half-page story with my before and after pics. Chicago's Channel 7 came to my apartment and ran a story on its 6 o'clock news just for the Super Bowl.

Getting out of hand? Yeah, timeout. If you're thinking this pathetic web-based protest should never have received any attention, I'm in agreement with you. What was ironic about this story is that they painted me as a freak-- imagine that-- a superfan, ready to strap myself with bombs and blow up my teeth and Washington, D.C., if they didn't change the art. And it was all pretty much lighthearted.

So Bob, the artist of the postage stamp, latched back to the AP. And I thought, this is just fun. I mean, I'm just running a website for gap-toothed people. You can't take me that seriously. So I called up Bob, and we talked about the stamp. We discussed angles and art representation. He was a really nice guy. I was thinking about dropping the protest already when he told me his three-year-old daughter was gap-toothed.

And that was it. Protest over. But what still gets me today is that the Web has the power to make insignificant things seem real, that email can really serve as a powerful form of protest, which it did in this case, and that people, including myself, really do have too much time on their hands.

Ira Glass

Well, as we looked for those stories from the net for this show, especially stories of things happened on that net might not happen anywhere else, we found Earl Jackson. He's an associate professor of Comparative Literature at the University of California at Santa Cruz. And he spends a lot of time on the net. He writes about the net, has seven websites himself. And he tells the story, which begins on America Online.

Earl Jackson

I was on AOL and other services in San Francisco a lot. And there are these chat rooms where gay men can meet and talk. And in San Francisco, it's fairly wild. There's a 24-hour bulletin board that I was observing for this study was doing, where you could almost be guaranteed that, if you lived in San Francisco and you had a modem, you could have sex any time of the day or night. This was a very goal-directed bulletin board.

Ira Glass

Right, people would meet, go have sex.

Earl Jackson

Right. And you would know exactly what they wanted to do. And you'd probably have nude pictures of them before that. What I also thought was really interesting-- and this was more true of AOL-- that there was a new metaphysics of sexuality, because people would talk about cybersex or real sex. And it occurred to me, after I listened to enough, by real sex, they meant phone sex.

Ira Glass

Oh, really?

Earl Jackson

Yeah, so it became, instead of a two-tier system, it's a three-tier system. And you have real sex, ultra-real sex, and cybersex.

Ira Glass

Wait, ultra-real sex, you said?

Earl Jackson

That would mean what I call a slow-time interface, which means actual physical contact.

Ira Glass

God, do people still do that?

Earl Jackson

Yes.

Ira Glass

Earl Jackson says that he meets more and more people who've hooked up what amounts to video cameras on their computers. With a technology called CU-SeeMe, they can look at the person they're interacting with over the net.

Earl Jackson

I know people that actually leave physical dates to go home and have sex over the net with the quick cam.

Ira Glass

Come--

Earl Jackson

It's true. There's an entire culture that's entirely video transmission sexuality now.

Ira Glass

Talk a little more about that. You actually know somebody who actually left an actual date--

Earl Jackson

Yeah, me, in fact. Yes.

Ira Glass

Oh, they left you?

Earl Jackson

Yeah, they left me. But he said that that is what he does lately. And I understood that, because a lot of men are afraid of sexual contact because of AIDS. So the perfect thing to eroticize is distance.

Ira Glass

And so he says to you-- at what point in the evening did he say, "I'm going to go home now?"

Earl Jackson

Pretty soon. He said that he really needed to do the CU-SeeMe stuff.

Ira Glass

Back in December of 1993, Earl Jackson met a guy over the net in one of these gay chat rooms. The guy's name was Ken, lived nearby. But he had a boyfriend. So the two never met in person. But almost every day for a year, they got online together and created these elaborate fantasies together online, using that kind of software where you can see what the other person types as they type it, and they can see what you type as you type it.

Earl Jackson

We would have a fantasy about, what if he came to my classroom and then I took him back into my office? But it was really sort of a game. But these narratives became so intense that we would set times of the day, or he would just check in. And he said, "Do you have time for a story now?" And he would start it. And then I'd continue it. And we have all of these stories.

But as we kept doing this, then a little part of his life would come in. And then there would be a story that we take us somewhere else. And then I'd know a little bit more. And soon, the sex part was really an excuse to tell the other stories. And sometimes, he would be telling this story about his childhood in Missouri. And then it would remind him of a social fantasy. And then he'd put me in it. And you couldn't plan to do these things. We became sort of like jazz pianists or something. We'd have these riffs together.

Then one day, he was asking me if I had time to talk to him. And I was just leaving. But I could tell that even the way he was typing was different.

Ira Glass

You could tell even the way he was typing was different?

Earl Jackson

Yes. Yes.

Ira Glass

What do you mean?

Earl Jackson

People have different habits in their speed or the way he would respond or if he didn't put a smiley face after a certain number words. I just knew there was something really wrong with the way he asked me if I had time. And he said, "Bad news, son." And I think I knew instantly what that was. He had tested positive. And he didn't know how to break it to me. And our messages to each other then became a lot more about that and about what happened to him as a child and other things that were fairly tragic and amazing that he was telling anybody, because he was really one of the strong, silent types.

Then-- this is when I should have gotten more nervous-- he started saying that he didn't want any of his porn tapes anymore, because he associated porn with him being positive. So he wanted to mail them to me. And he mailed me a box of them. I didn't really want them, but he wanted to do this for me. So there was suddenly a box of porn tapes in my house. And then the following week, there was one, too.

And just before I got back to San Francisco, I got a message from him, hoping that I was well and hoping I got the tapes. And he said that I'd get another message very soon. Now, he was writing to me almost entirely in capital letters, which scared me. And I didn't know why. But here's the last one. "I have it all boxed up now. I will give it to my friend. He will mail it for me like he did before. And it will arrive either Thursday or Friday via two-day express. I have a letter coming to you to help explain a few things. Thank you for being a friend when I really needed it. Kenneth."

And then, three days, nothing. And then there's just one line. "A package should arrive today, 1/19/95. Email me. Cruiser3. Bye. Love, Ken. And then on the 25th, there was one that looked like it was from Ken. It was his screen name. But then, when I opened it up, it said, "This is a hard note for me to write. Ken left a note to ask me to let you know. Ken took his own life on Friday, January 20. He was cremated yesterday, and his ashes will be dropped into the ocean off San Francisco today. Ken's mental attitude over the last four to six weeks is very hard to describe. He was a basket case, to say the least. I will keep his account open for the next day if you have any questions or response, and I will try to answer them for you. Ken's friend, Dave."

Ira Glass

Did he send you a final note in the last package he sent you?

Earl Jackson

Yeah. It was the only time I ever saw his handwriting. And that said similar things to this. it was just, "Thank you for being a friend when I needed it. And I will always love you."

Ira Glass

It must have been so strange to see a physical manifestation of him after the email.

Earl Jackson

It was. And what was really odd was that, when he first sent the first box of tapes, he told me which tape had a scene where the two people are the ones that he imagined us to be. Now, that doesn't mean that he looked like either one of them. But he knew the fantasy scenario that would resonate with us. So even at that point, our fantasies were constantly mediated by some other technology. And-- which is probably hard for you to imagine-- but none of this cold. There was something so tender about this that I was very moved by this experience.

Ira Glass

After he died, did you go through a period of mourning for him?

Earl Jackson

Yes, I did. Yes.

Ira Glass

What a strange thing to be mourning somebody who you never actually saw.

Earl Jackson

Yeah, although it's real. When people say, oh, the computers are making us all isolated and it's such a cold world, I've had emotional experiences and long-term friendships that would have never been possible otherwise.

Ira Glass

It's funny, because it's almost like the whole thing, it could be a con, an elaborate con.

Earl Jackson

But he would be such a creep that-- I thought of that, actually, because it seemed almost like a melodrama from a long time ago. It was really tawdry. And if I wrote a short story, I wouldn't end it this way, because it was too hokey.

Ira Glass

After he died, you know how after somebody you were close to is gone, how when you go back to the places where you used to go with them, you'll think of them inevitably and miss them. After he was gone, when you would get back on your computer, would you sense his loss?

Earl Jackson

Yes. Yeah, he really felt gone. He really felt gone. When I saw somebody else using his screen name, to get a stranger with his screen name, that was really, really chilling.

Ira Glass

Earl Jackson in Santa Cruz.

Credits.

Mary

He actually was going to set me up with a copy of Office 97.

Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass, back next week with more stories of this American life.

Announcer

PRI, Public Radio International.