Four weddings and a baby

 

Fancy going to the pub but worried about drinking and driving, or getting a babysitter? Well, now you don't need to leave home to go to an Irish pub - a virtual Irish pub, that is. Just turn on your computer, log on to the Internet and in a couple of minutes you could be chatting with more than 40 people in the main bar, snug, or even the toilets of the Virtual Irish Pub (VIP).

Not only is the Internet transforming the way we communicate, replacing phone calls and letters with emails, but it is also changing the way people meet. Since the VIP opened its "doors" for business in 1994, more than four million people have dropped in for a chat and it has been responsible for many new friendships, business relationships and visits to Ireland.

"We've had four weddings and one baby," says VIP's Frank Cronin proudly, "all by people who met by chance in the VIP. They weren't actively seeking partners - friendly chat developed into something else." In the VIP, a live "conversation" takes place as people type in their comments, questions, or personal details and other VIPers in the "room" type replies. After typing in your two penny's worth, it will appear on everyone's screen, but as other "drinkers" are also "talking" you might not see a reply until 10 or 20 other people have posted their comments (by which time, you may feel as if you are being ignored, and go into another "room" with fewer people).

With more than 30 people in one room, it can take a while to learn how to follow a conversation - it is a little like being in a very noisy bar with everyone talking at the same time and you can only manage to catch a few sentences from one conversation or half a joke from another.

When you get the hang of it, however, the VIP can become addictive. "When I first got on the Internet, my best friend and I had a whole week's vacation which we pretty much spent in the Pub. It was kind of sad - there was a flood in town and we didn't even know about it until we went back to work . . . for a long time, I was in the Pub pretty much every night for two to three hours - longer on weekends," says Tamera Maddox, (29) a government employee in Ohio, US, whose life has been transformed by the VIP.

"My husband and I met in the good old snug of the VIP," she says. Tamera and Joseph (24) went from chatting in the snug to exchanging emails and photos before going into a private room in the VIP (where nobody else can "hear" your conversation) to finally meeting face-to-face (or in Real Time, or RT, as cyber-chatters call real life). One month after meeting RT, and nine months after their first virtual meeting, Joseph proposed.

"The anonymity that the Internet allows during the whole meeting process lets people be a whole hell of a lot more honest and open than they would be in person. I truly believe that when Joey and I got married we knew each other better than most people who have dated for three or four years," says Tamera.

Another fan of cyber-romance is Roxi Baxley (36) of Oregon, who was a single mother when she began spending 10 hours a day in the VIP because she needed "adult interaction on a daily basis". Since meeting her new husband, Jim (43) in the VIP, Roxi now lives in Washington with him, her three children from a previous marriage and their baby daughter, Hayley, aged four-and-a-half months.

The couple decided to live together three months after meeting in the VIP: "Life on the Net can move at a very quick pace, more so than in real life. It's easier to form relationships on the Net and say things that you probably wouldn't say on a real date," says Jim, who works in the paper industry.

While many view Internet chat rooms as the cyber equivalent of sleazy late-night telephone chat lines, the "regulars" of the VIP feel that their "local" is vastly superior, both to phone lines and to other live chat rooms. Frank Cronin is keen to stress that the VIP is an online community, with a group of people who use it on a regular basis, for both live chat and the bulletin boards (where messages are posted on a particular theme).

The sense of community is reinforced by get-togethers of VIP regulars in RL. Last year Roxi and Jim flew to New Orleans to meet a group of regulars, and will soon be taking a trip to Las Vegas to meet others. But it's not only a US phenomenon: a Galway get-together is being planned for October. A recent VIP survey found that 60 per cent of the pub users are in the US and 12 per cent in Ireland, they are aged 18 to 35, and just over half of them visit the VIP daily - but only 5 per cent admit to looking for a cyber-flirtation. More than 100,000 people drop into the pub every month and there are more than 1,400 "regulars".

Becoming a "regular" costs £25 a year and confers certain privileges such as the right to attend online discussions with the barmen (i.e. VIP staff) and the ability to create a private room within the pub for you and your guests. It also prevents anyone else from using your logon name, or "handle" - apparently it is uncool to log on to a chat room using your real name and "handles" used by VIPers range from Powdered Toast Man to Lady of the Lake.

The initial attraction for Monica B., who first visited the pub after becoming ill with chronic fatigue syndrome (ME), was that noone "was going to judge you" in the VIP. "Many folks I had known had dropped me like a hot potato once I became ill and was no longer middle-class. So it was greatly surprising to me when I came to the VIP to find that I was not only accepted for who I was, but that no one rejected me because of my disability," says Monica (41), an organic gardener in North Carolina.

"There's an image of the Internet as a dating den," says Brian Gilliland in Belfast. "When I told my friends I met a woman on the Net, they said I must be a sad, lonely individual - there's a cliche of grey-faced individuals who do not get out enough, living their lives through a monitor."

However, Brian (35), who runs a direct marketing agency, has developed a creative business relationship with Rochelle, a Chicago-based graphic designer he met in the VIP. "How it works is that I'll email her text, logos, photos etc. Then we log on to VIP in a private room and decide how we want to approach the job . . . we discuss any tricky bits online. Because of the exchange rate, she's inexpensive and because of the time gap, she works while I sleep so the turnaround time on jobs is shorter than with artists down the road from me."

Socially, Brian no longer goes into the chat rooms of the VIP as he finds the VIP bulletin boards more stimulating with humorous, heated or educational discussions and "topics are discussed reasonably intelligently". He posts regularly on the Northern Ireland Politics bulletin board: "It can become incredibly addictive. It's like an argument in a pub - you've got to reply - to get in the last word. Most of the people posting on the board are in stressful, professional jobs and have Net access at work. They take a five or 10minute break and use it as a way of relaxing. If I'm particularly frustrated with work or if there is a good argument going on, I might dip in to see the replies once an hour, for five minutes."

Loyalty to the VIP continues even after cyber-romance: "Once you fall into the pub, you never want to leave. You feel at home. It's a world unlike any other," says Joseph Maddox. His wife Tamera attributes the VIP's popularity to the rapidly-changing world we live in: "People need to accept that the world is changing and the VIP is just one step in making it a much smaller place."

The Virtual Irish Pub is at Monica B.'s web page is at