On-line services such as America Online, CompuServe, and Prodigy cast a wide net to pull you in. They've got conferences on everything from scuba diving to stock picking, resources from games to government publications. But what if you don't want a little of a lot, but do want a lot of a little? What if, say, all you really desire are stories and pictures devoted to giant, muscular women?
In that case, you'd best skip any on-line service you've ever heard of and dial 702-243-7723 on your computer's modem instead. That's the number for the Amazons Arena BBS the self-proclaimed electronic home of ''the World's Most Powerful and Dominating Women.'' Hooked into that computer, you can retrieve pictures of 7'7 1/4'' Sandy Allen, chat with fellow Arena members, and read, er, short fiction like ''Suzie's Big Change.''
Though they might not have a lot in common, Amazons Arena, AOL, Prodigy, and other on-line services are, strictly speaking, the same. Each is a bulletin-board system, or BBS. Devised by two Chicago computer enthusiasts in 1978, a BBS is any computer set up to accept temporary links from other computers, enabling users to post messages, exchange E-mail, chat live, or share programs, pictures, and text. The term BBS is commonly limited to lesser-known dial-up services, but within those the possibilities are unlimited. BBS's can be public or private, free or subscription-based (Amazons Arena charges $45 a year), general interest or specialized. Some can handle hundreds of callers at the same time; others, only one. About 65,000 BBS's are open to the public in North America alone, estimates Boardwatch magazine.
''[A BBS is] like a channel on a great big cable system,'' says Alan Bechtold, editor of the trade journal Sysop News. You can call up BBS's specializing in POW issues, aviation, or woodworking. One of the most popular, according to Boardwatch, is Software Creations, a huge computer-game archive where, among other things, players can find homemade levels of Doom and the tools to create their own. Thanks to the Cat Byte BBS, which specializes in motorcycles, you can download an audio clip of a Harley-Davidson motor revving, gawk at a 1985 Honda Gold Wing, and read such postings as ''I currently have an 83 Ironhead Roadster and am looking for 2pc. 5gal Fat Boy tanks in good condition.'' The Floating Pancreas, a cyberpunky BBS devoted to the ''OnLine inFormATion ReVoLuTIon,'' features aggressively unfriendly typography and subversive texts, not to mention Peanuts arcana.
BBS's like these aren't just clubhouses; with sysops (system operators) acting as gatekeepers, they're more like walled communities that protect against the free-for-all of the Internet. ''We try to keep [our] board a safe haven for gay men,'' says Richard, who operates the San Francisco-based Eye Contact for Men BBS. ''They know they're not going to get bashed, they're not going to get harassed.''