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OC HIGH: STUDENT NEWS & VIEWS : TERMINAL TEENS : You know that old joke about kids who hog the phone? Well, today's great communicators are plugged into a whole new way to tap the information highway from home.

March 31, 1994|RICHARD KWOK | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Richard Kwok, 16, is a senior at Westminster High School and a frequent computer user. He is on Chips+ as Richie Kwok.

With the growing number of computers and the services they provide, teens are finding new ways to "talk." They are getting together with people they've never met to instantly trade information and find out what's going on from Arizona to Zaire.

Communicating by modem--transmitting messages and other information over phone lines from one computer to another--gets you an acknowledgment and a reply in a single step. Among computer users, the postal mail system is referred to as "snail mail." Electronic mail, or E-mail, is instantaneous.

If your computer has a modem, you can "talk" with other computer users and, with a few keystrokes, tap into large data bases for up-to-date information. You can also send your own work to another computer instantly.

There are four major commercial on-line services: America Online, CompuServe, GEnie and Prodigy. These and other services specialize in certain features, such as electronic bulletin boards, interactive games, news reports, magazine articles, stock quotes and more. ImagiNation, for example, is a commercial service featuring on-line, multiplayer games.

Access to these and other services costs money--to subscribe and in monthly connection fees. But they open doors to new worlds.

These new worlds are represented through bulletin boards, and teens are making use of a wide variety of them. There are thousands of bulletin boards providing millions of files for downloading and conferences--or forums--on various topics.

It's estimated that half the homes in the United States have a computer. About 4.5 million subscribers are connected to commercial services, and 4 million to 8 million computer users dial up local, non-commercial bulletin board systems--or BBSs. About one in 10 of those users is a teen-ager, according to Boardwatch magazine, a national publication for BBS users.

If you have a computer but not a modem, now is the time to get one: Prices have dropped unbelievably, so that a top-of-the-line modem is about $100 at outlets such as Fry's and Micro Center. Be sure to get one with a speed of 14,400 or greater, because that is becoming the new standard.

Once you connect it to your computer, you can dial out and get in touch not only with information, but with other people.

Here's how some of the systems work:

Prodigy

Prodigy has a reputation for being user friendly and offers a selection of information features such as News, Weather and Encyclopedia. It emphasizes user communication through message topics and offers file downloading services through a feature called Ziffnet. The main bulletin board is sub-divided into several smaller ones including Teen, Arts, TV, Music and Video Games.

These mini-bulletin boards have their own sections, subjects and bulletins. For example, to get to the College topics, you would first go to the Teen Bulletin Board and then choose the topic "College." You would then see the bulletins relating to college such as "HARVARD IS EASY."

Then again, you could go to the TV section and message some personalities, including Patrick Stewart and Jay Leno, because the stars frequently answer mail there.

Prodigy also has a private mailing system, in which you could send E-mail directly to the person's "mailbox."

The company offers a Value Plan for $14.95 per month, which includes 30 personal private messages, all the basic services and two hours of Plus features. The Plus features include using the bulletin boards. If you exceed the allotted use, you'll be charged $3.60 per hour. The person who will be responsible for paying the bill must be over 18. To join, call (800) 776-3449.

ImagiNation

ImagiNation, formerly The Sierra Network, by Sierra On-Line, is one of my favorites. It has a user base of 40,000.

You can chat real-time with other users as opposed to leaving mail. It's also one of the most intuitive, because you can actually see the other person's portrait (and design your own).

ImagiNation is mainly game-oriented, and it does games well. You can invite someone to Mini Golf and take turns as if you were playing on the green. You can play Red Baron, a flight simulator, and shoot down the other person in a dogfight. You can have others join you in the dungeons of a role-playing game. Of course, there are chess, checkers and your standard card games.

ImagiNation is a great way to make friends because of the graphically fun setup. After inviting someone you don't know to a friendly game of checkers, chances are that you'll discuss something in common and will soon be friends.

Of course that someone may be many states away, but not to worry, it's a local call.

The start-up kit is $5.95; the monthly charge in $9.95. For use over five hours, the cost is $3.50 per hour. To join, call (800) 462-4461. (You can also get access to ImagiNation through a Prodigy service called Gamepoint, which costs $3.60 per hour or a monthly rate of $22.95.)

GEnie

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