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The Internet has become more than an information superhighway. For some, it has become the road to true romance, for others a route to fast friendships...
When Nyani-lisha S. Martin '97 responded in May of last year to a posted message on an Internet newsgroup, she got more than she bargained for.
Martin started exchanging e-mail messages with Bill, who posted the original message, and the two of them became good friends.
A few months later, the regular posters to the newsgroup arranged to meet in New York. But Martin had more expectations than most.
At the party, she met Bill for the first time and they hit it off.
"We really liked each other and we started to write each other [even more]," she says.
Martin and Bill are still dating.
And Martin says that if it had not been for the Internet, she doubts the two would have ever gotten together.
Martin is just one of many students at Harvard who have met significant others or maintained relationships through the Internet, which has expanded its role from a provider of information and mailbox to a modern-age matchmaker.
With 6,299 of the 6,420 Harvard students, or 98 percent, holding user accounts, according to Harvard Arts and Sciences Computer Services Director Franklin M. Steen, the potential for finding romance on the 'Net is greater than ever.
Every first-year has an account and the 14,000 total users of the Harvard system exchange a total of 175,000 e-mail messages each day, Steen writes in an e-mail message. This means that each user sends and/or receives approximately 13 messages daily, he says.
The newsgroups seem to be quite the breeding ground for romance.
In addition to Martin, Rachel M. Kadel '98 met her current boyfriend as a result of newsgroup activity.
Kadel and Nico, then a student at MIT, were both regular posters on a newsgroup that discussed religion and scientology.
In February, some of the newsgroup's regular posters went to a party in Boston so they could meet one another.
Kadel and Nico met at the party and "somehow after that, Nico and I never really left each other's presence," Kadel says.
But some Internet relations are more than just across the river they are across the continent.
A Lowell House sophomore who did not wish to be identified said she met a student in Vancouver about a year ago through a newsgroup.
The 24-year-old Vancouver student posted a question about the rock singer Sting to which she knew the answer, so she posted the response. He sent her an e-mail and the two started sending messages back and forth.
After a year of exchanging e-mails and sending talk requests, he decided to fly from Vancouver to meet her. He plans to come to Boston for a week in January.
"At first I was concerned because my roommates think I am insane...but then I talked to him about my fears and he was very reassuring. Now I'm just excited and very anxious," the sophomore says. "I'm really trying not to place unfair expectations on our meeting."
"It's such a strange situation to know someone so well and never have met them face to face," she says. "I guess it causes you to question what's most important in a relationship."
The newsgroups are good for making long-term friendships as well.
A few Harvard students met their future roommates through "alt.fan.karl-malden," a newsgroup colonized last year by students in Straus C entryway, said Janet E. Rosenbaum '98.
Karl Malden is an actor made popular in American Express commercials.
Having corresponded through the newsgroup, the students decided to meet one night over pizza. Some stayed together for the housing lottery and are now living in Dunster House.
"People started to spend time together because of that group," Rosenbaum says.
"[There is] a lot of overlap between my friends and the Karl Malden readers," she says.
In some cases, the Internet has helped to maintain relationships begun in person.
Stefanie F. Bailey '97 met her boyfriend four years ago when she was on an exchange program in Sweden.
Bailey and Frederick exchanged occasional letters at first. But when Frederick sent her his e-mail address, their relationship reached a new plateau.
The two started to exchange several e-mails per day and talk on the Internet.
"I don't think we really would have gotten together if it hadn't been for e-mail," Bailey says.
Friendships can form over the Internet in some unusual ways.
Before coming to Harvard this year, Rachel I. Mason '99 received an e-mail from a random student in New York who had seen her name in an article about the action she had taken pertaining to proposed government cuts in the National Science Scholarship.
Mason says she responded to the e-mail and the two began e-mailing regularly.
"We are probably going to meet one another someday," she says, but not having met him "adds to the mystique of the whole thing."
Manson, who already has a boyfriend, says the student is "just an e-mail buddy."
In another case of a friendship starting through a random e-mail message, Matthew L. Bruce '96 says he and Catherine, a law student in New Zealand, have gotten to know each other after she e-mailed him because his home page on the World Wide Web had caught her attention.
Catherine had been looking at the home pages because her best friend was about to start her first year at Harvard Law School.
Bruce and Catherine began e-mailing back and forth, and Catherine, who is coming to Harvard in January to visit her best friend for three weeks, has arranged to meet Bruce then.
Internet games provide another good way to meet new people.
This past March, Corwyn Y. Miyagishma '96-'97 met a woman from Kansas on MUD, an interactive game on the Internet.
Two months later, Miyagishma met the woman in person when she was flying through New Jersey, his home state. They still keep in touch.
Pluses and Minuses
Students say meeting people on the 'Net is much easier than in person.
"Some people find meeting other people in person scary," says Professor of Psychology Philip J. Stone, who taught a class last year on networking and social coordination. "People who are shy or self-conscious about something are more comfortable meeting people on computers."
"I was amazed how many stories [the students] had about people they knew who preferred to meet somebody on the Internet," he says, referring to the class.
Students say meeting over the Internet helps to find people who have similar interests or makes it easier for shy people to be themselves and meet someone through the protection of a computer.
"Sometimes when you post on a newsgroup you can meet people with similar interests," Miyagishima says.
"It's an interesting thing because the 'Net is so blind; you can post things and not be aware that a person is there," Rosenbaum says. "There are quite a few people who are too shy to meet people otherwise."
On the other hand, Kadel warns that not everyone who people meet over the net are as safe as one would think.
Kadel comments on having received several random talk requests "just because I'm a girl".
Students also question how much you can really know a person that you have met over the Internet.
"There are a heck of a lot of people that I've met over the 'Net that I would scream and run away from [if we met in person]," Kadel says.
She recalls one such instance in which she responded to a post by a 40-year-old man in Chicago two years ago.
After e-mailing back and forth for some time, his e-mails became more and more flirtatious. Kadel says she started to set nervous when he asked her to send him a picture of herself. Before she could respond, her system crashed and she has not heard from him since.
Martin says that an obvious disadvantage to meeting people on the 'Net is that it is often impossible to really get to know them until a real meeting takes place.
In her own case, she says, everything that her boyfriend was telling her could have been lies, and she would not have been able to recognize the deceit.
"On Uschet, no one knows if you're a dog," Martin adds.
"The obvious disadvantage of Internet romance is that the people involved become very intimate before they have actually me," Bruce says. "You can never fully understand a person until you have met."
As Kadel says, "I am glad I did it, but I wouldn't do it again."
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