It’s June, five months into the Simpson trial, and Kato Kaelin is about to make his first online appearance. Live! From CompuServe! It’s O.J.’s alibi!
Except he’s late.
Some 500 Simpson junkies, joined in computer-mediated communion, each paying $4.80 an hour in hopes of extracting information that even Johnnie Cochran can’t, are growing increasingly restless.
In cyberspace no one can hear you scream — but on the telephone they can. ”What do you mean he isn’t there yet?!” I bark at my employer’s L.A. bureau. Did Kato have an asthma attack brought on by an environmentally unfriendly can of mousse? I learn that Kato’s limo is stuck in traffic and that he’ll arrive in half an hour.
”Kato’s having modem problems, so you won’t be charged for this conference,” I type to our audience from my office terminal. I’m the conference host, the one who will translate Kato-speak into computerized text.
On the Internet, brand-name stars are like Godot: Any moment now David Duchovny will log on to the alt.showbiz.gossip newsgroup, right? We’re all still waiting. Meanwhile, the most reliable way to get up close and wired with your favorite celeb is to participate in a conference on an online service — such as America Online, CompuServe, or Prodigy — or on the World Wide Web.
At this stage in the technology, sharing Net time with a VIP is an act of faith. For one thing, most celebs can’t type — which explains why they did not pursue careers as office temps. Chances are, the star whose words you are reading on your screen is on the other end of a telephone, connected to an intermediary — sometimes me — whose job it is not merely to take dictation but also to filter out the mans, likes, and you knows.
In an online conference, fans do the interviewing. The host’s responsibility is to screen and select the questions; the prudent moderator will keep a ready supply of safe queries on hand (i.e., their cinematic influences) lest he or she end up presiding over dead space or an online encounter session. Stars don’t want to talk about their ex-wives, former boyfriends, or more successful siblings.
The main reason any celebrity goes online, of course, is to promote. But for every Jackie Chan or Paul Mazursky waxing evangelical about his latest efforts, genuinely happy to make connections with the invisible audience, there are some guests who are less than thrilled with their virtual fans. ”Hi, Richard. I love you, man,” a fan gushes to Richard Pryor. ”Okay, thanks. I know the feeling,” Pryor responds via my fingers. ”Will all of your old albums be coming out soon on CD?” ”Yes, I think they’re all coming out,” he answers. ”Slowly but surely. You may not understand, but tough.” And then there’s the surly producer-turned-writer in her black leather jacket who snarls at her hapless interrogator, ”Are you Connie Chung in drag?” She’ll never do Net in this town again.
The counterpart of the reluctant guest is the unruly audience. Intoxicated by the electronic proximity to their idols, some fans will besiege a guest with intimate inquiries that even a therapist would avoid. Increasingly irate when their questions about Kathy Ireland’s panty size are ignored, they will send the hapless conference host hate E-mail for weeks.