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Amazing Find! No Gravity in Cyberia : Pop music: Although Michael Jackson's label swears neither he nor the company set guidelines, questions posed during his online session were anything but hard-hitting.

August 19, 1995|STEVE HOCHMAN | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Computer user Tristine: Who is your best friend?

Michael Jackson: My best friend . . . it's pretty much the same as I've said all the time, the children of the world.

Oprah, come back . . . Diane, all is forgiven. We're sorry we called your questions to Michael Jackson softballs.

Compared to the queries addressed when the King of Pop held court in cyberspace on Thursday, Winfrey and Sawyer were Sandy Koufax and Nolan Ryan.

Computer user Gary M. Richards: . . . Do you still have the pet monkey named Bubbles?

Jackson: Bubbles is still alive and still my pet chimp. He's bigger and he still eats a lot of pizza, ice cream, he loves snacks.

Bubbles, for all we know, was the one answering the questions in this chat, which was anchored at the Museum of Television and Radio in Manhattan and--for the first time in, um, HIStory--involved all three major online companies (America Online, CompuServe and Prodigy) as well as Sony's Internet hook-up. That's the problem with these "cyberchats."

For all the one-on-one, unedited possibilities of online action, a faceless detachment also can prevail. And with four services trying to coordinate the effort, this effect was quadrupled.

Here's how it worked (or didn't, as the case may be): Each service had a computer operator on hand, the four taking turns picking from the questions posed by their respective users. Jackson answered each question out loud and the operators typed that in, which left all of us at the mercy of our typists. As a result, each service's transcripts read rather differently. While CompuServe carried the Bubbles question and answer as seen above, AOL--whose chat was also scrolled on MTV underneath Jackson videos--left out some of the words ("He eats a lot . . . pizza"). MTV and AOL representatives said that a system overload forced them to condense things to keep up the pace.

Not that it made much difference. The questions themselves didn't really call for detailed, accurate answers. But did we expect otherwise?

Melanie Rogers, spokeswoman for Jackson's label, Epic Records, swears that neither he nor the company set any guidelines or screened out questions with touchy subject matter. The services themselves made those choices. Rogers says the truth was that most fans wanted to know about tour plans, favorite songs and the like.

No wonder that, at least on AOL, the participants started dropping out about half-way through the hourlong session, going quickly from a peak of nearly 5,000 people to less than 3,000 at the conclusion. (Total usership of 13,000 was estimated for the four services combined.)

The only remotely eyebrow-raising question was about a British tabloid report that Jackson and his wife, Lisa Marie Presley, are about to divorce.

Jackson's answer: "Never believe the tabloid garbage. Don't waste your time or money. No it's not true. If you hear it from my lips then you can believe it."

(On Friday, Presley's publicist, Paul Bloch, also denied the divorce reports.)

Some of the few other semi-interesting questions concerned his alleged lack of a childhood ("Trick or treat or Christmas or birthday . . . we didn't have any of those. . . . I haven't celebrated my birthday yet") and what famous person he'd like to meet ("Michelangelo because . . . even though he got criticized he was a true artist to the point of true artistry").

Mostly, though, he just continued his attacks on "the media," even as he manipulated this relatively new medium to serve his own ego gratification.

"If you look throughout past history . . . it's been pretty much the same," he said about important figures being dumped on by the press. "Gandhi, Christ--and I'm not saying I'm Christ. I don't want the press saying that."

No problem. Cyberchats with Gandhi and Christ would certainly have been a lot more entertaining.

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