It’s 9 p.m. and Gail Hoover knows exactly where her teenagers are.
They’re looking over her shoulder, waiting for her to get off the home computer so they can dial up a local bulletin board and chat with friends.
They’ll have to wait because Hoover is getting her nightly fix of keyboard chat. That’s where people across town or across the globe exchange nearly simultaneous remarks over the Internet, the vast network of computer users worldwide.
She starts the evening logging onto a channel called 30+ - for those 30 years and older. About a dozen people are tapping out advice, comments, chitchat, all streaming down her screen:
“(from Motormouth) I heard Sports Illustrated put pictures of its swimsuit issue on-line today. Got 200,000 hits (from people trying to look)!!!!”
“(from Tiger) Jake! get yr mind off that… ROTS yr brain. You see…”
“(from Jake) Tiger, we know all about your brain… It’s like a legend in your own mind…”
Hoover is hooked to on-line chatting. She’s given up television. She doesn’t read as much any more.
“I’m addicted, I admit it. I get to meet all sorts of people, from all over the world,” says the 40-year-old supervisor at The Exchange, a Spokane advertising publication.
While detractors belittle chat as a trivial waste of time, people who like it say it’s part virtual cocktail-party, part zen encounter with kindred spirits.
Not all the conversations are inane or pointless, Hoover says.
She switches to Channel 41+ and finds about 10 people on-line, most of whom she counts among her friends. Over the next hour they share ideas and catch up on gossip.
Since September, when she discovered what is formally called Internet Relay Chat, Hoover says she’s become a new woman. Chatting on-line makes her more confident, more likely to talk with strangers.
“I wasn’t a cheerleader or that involved in high school activities,” she says. “This has helped make me more outgoing.”
For Ellen Hietala, 21, chatting on Spokane computer bulletin boards is a way to find new friends. The Spokane Falls Community College student says she’s too busy to meet many new people the old fashioned way.
“You may live across town and would never meet otherwise. But bulletin boards are where people with similar interests can find each other,” Hietala says.
The key step in moving beyond an on-line encounter is “going voice” - talking on the telephone, she says.
“Once you’ve had a phone conversation, it’s only a matter of time until you get together.”
Even when the chatters live thousands of miles apart.
Regulars on channel 41+ hold parties every now and then to meet face to face. Hoover attended channel 41+ parties in Portland and Arizona, where a get-together organized by a chat regular attracted about 30 people.
She confesses she spends at least two or three hours a night chatting. To manage that, she pays about $15 a month to a local computer company that gives her access to the Internet.
“I’m not as bad as some people, who are always on,” she says. “But on some weekends, I’ve been at it until the sun comes up.”
Researchers and psychologists are busy trying to define the kind of personality that becomes addicted to Internet chatting.
They say chatting several hours a day is fun, harmless and probably a good example of - how to say it? - people with too much time on their hands.
It appeals to some people because of its impersonal, non-threatening quality.
“You don’t see faces or hear a voice, so some people feel they can communicate more easily this way,” says Karen Michaelson, director of grants at Eastern Washington University.
She adds quickly: “I don’t have time myself to do that.”
Taking a break from the 41+ group, Hoover calls up a list of more than 900 channels available just on one small portion of the Internet: The Flirt Channel, Wetsex, Netsex, the Chatzone, New York City, NBA Chat, Slovenia, Mormon Channel, and Channel Francaise.
Chat groups with off-color titles seem to generate the most interest. Wetsex, a popular hangout for college students, has 20 or more people chatting at a time. A channel called OralSex has 34 this night.
Once on a channel, users can see who’s participating. Many chatters use nicknames such as “Aardvark” or “Suz.”
In a common chat game, one person describes a make-believe scenario involving another chatter, such as: “Gail walks over to Sasquatch, tickles his toes.”
The response: “Sasquatch grins, pulls out a bottle of Molson. Shakes it and opens. Foam everywhere.”
Not everyone on-line is friendly. Some people make rude or harassing remarks.
“If you just don’t answer, they get bored and go somewhere else,” Hoover says.
She made the best on-line friends by “going private,” a computer technique that allows two people to leave the group and chat privately with each other.
“That’s the way you get to talk about serious things,” Hoover says, “such as your job, families, whatever.”
Hoover’s 19-year-old daughter, Heather, and 15-year-old son, Rob, picked up the passion for chat from their mother. They share tips and discoveries.
While waiting for her to surrender the keyboard, Rob says they’ve found that Australians join the chat channels after 11 p.m.
“That’s when they’re getting off work, since it’s about 5 their time,” Hoover says.
“They’re definitely fun,” adds Rob. “For some reason, nearly every one I’ve found has a weird sense of humor.”