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Finding Keyboard Kin : Members of SeniorNet talk about everything, with about 50 categories on which they can write. They even have an on-line cocktail party, and some are planning a cruise.

January 28, 1994|BARBARA BRONSON GRAY | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Barbara Bronson Gray is a regular contributor to Valley Life!

Within minutes of the Northridge quake, Polly Black was receiving messages from all over the country, direct to her on-line mailbox on SeniorNet.

When Black was able to sign on after she got power back at midnight the day of the quake, she found 174 messages, from as far away as the East Coast and Alaska--all offering love and help. One message from a woman in New York begged Black to check on her aunt in a Sylmar trailer park; Black asked her daughter who lives in the area to scout for the woman, and messaged back the good news that the woman was fine.

In good times, SeniorNet is keyboard cocktail parties, chat and a chance to discuss everything from kid troubles to politics. In the wake of the quake, it was a communication link with the rest of the country.

SeniorNet, a nonprofit, San Francisco-based organization, calls itself the community of computer-using seniors.

With more than 10,000 members nationwide, it has 57 learning centers that offer students 55 and older workshops in computer technologies. But it's through the organization's SeniorNet Online that senior citizens are finding keyboard kin.

For Black, joining SeniorNet three years ago created a network of friends and interests she thought were seriously missing in her life. She believed that she was wasting away at home, doing nothing. A 64-year-old widow living with her son, daughter-in-law and two grandchildren in Woodland Hills, she was disconnected from others and bored.

After hearing about SeniorNet, her son came home and persuaded his mother to find out more about it. He brought a computer into her room and signed her up with America Online, a national information service that allows users to communicate using a phone, modem and computer.

Ever since, Black has been on-line five to six hours a day. "It's the best thing that ever happened to me," she said.

Every Wednesday night, from 6:30 to 7:30, these senior keyboard communicators have an on-line cocktail party. Black said Phil, in San Francisco, tends bar--which means he offers members a drink as they sign on--and he draws the glass on the screen using parentheses and underlines. Others draw bowls of chips and dip (the chips are made with capital C's). Some sip wine as they type in their chatter; others are teetotalers.

Barbara Schlein of Reseda, a widow who lives alone, enjoys the chance to stay up until 2 or 3 in the morning, talking on-line. "I like it; it's friendly," she said. She's joining 40 other SeniorNet Onliners for a three-day cruise to Mexico in February.

Not all the talk is light. Black told a story about a Colorado member who kept typing into the system that he was short of breath, but he wasn't getting off the modem line to call 911. A member in Washington state called police in the Colorado member's hometown, and is credited by other on-line users with saving his life.

Black said members talk about everything, with about 50 different categories on which they can write, including politics, a gay and lesbian forum, a generation-to-generation arena, questions and answers on computers and videos.

As the computer communicators have gotten to know each other, they have started to organize face-to-face meetings when they're in a keyboard friend's town. Black said it is sometimes hard to meet an on-line confidant in person--some are bold and witty on-line, but shy and retiring in the flesh. "But when you meet, it's like you've met a part of your family," she said.

Charlotte Griffith, a 67-year-old divorced psychologist in Sherman Oaks, has been using SeniorNet Online for about three months. She, too, is going on the cruise to Mexico, although she has not yet met anyone else who has signed up.

"But everybody is so absolutely warm--if you can conceive of warmth on a computer screen," she said.

Mary Furlong, SeniorNet president, said she is amazed at the sense of community that has developed through the on-line service. She finds that a lot comes across through the way people present themselves via the keyboard. "You know whether someone is warm, intuitive, cheerful--you see their ideas--and not whether someone is fat or blue-haired," she said.

When Furlong first developed the idea of SeniorNet Online, her vision was to re-create a neighborhood park that she had enjoyed in her childhood, a place where people would come during the day to talk. But now, she said, she sees the system working less like a town square and more like an interactive diary.

The data shows most seniors read more, listen to more radio and watch more television than do most other demographic groups. "But not a lot of media will let you talk back," the San Francisco resident said. Typically, new users begin by lurking--reading others' comments--then gradually evolve to chatting through forums and e-mail.

Members' demographics are interesting: 51% are between 66 and 75, 36% have some post-college or graduate degree, and 68% are not working or are retired.

Griffith, a specialist in neurolinguistics, said signing on has changed her outlook.

"There's no body language, just the keyboard, timing and quips. The syntax is very revealing. But just to visualize the people I'm talking to is a trip. It's like reading a novel, except here you can ask questions of the characters."

Where and When

What: SeniorNet is a special-interest group for computer users on the America Online service.

Price: SeniorNet members can use SeniorNet Online by subscribing to America Online for $9.95 a month. SeniorNet membership is $25 a year, which includes a quarterly newsletter and discounts from software publishers and other computer retailers.

Call: To order, write SeniorNet, 399 Arguello Blvd., San Francisco 94118, or call (415) 750-5045.

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