By day, John Roberts manages a McDonald's in Roseville, Mich., a Detroit suburb. But when he is sitting in front of the IBM compatible in his parents' house, he becomes the Bondage Angel. Several times a day, he logs on to the Prodigy network, uses that nickname, and ''talks'' about his favorite band, Depeche Mode, to friends around the country.
''I did a pencil sketch of the guys about two years ago,'' he wrote one night to a friend. ''I'll Xerox it down to a smaller size and send it to you... I'm pretty proud of it!'' Roberts says he was the first on Prodigy to inform his friends that singer David Gahan had grown his short hair shoulder-length. ''Some people were shocked,'' he recalls.
''Around here, you feel like you're the only person who likes Depeche Mode,'' says Roberts, 23, about the British pop band whose introspective music and solemn presence have landed them a huge cult following and sellout arena concerts. ''There's only one radio station that plays their type of music. There's only one record store that keeps up to date with imports and things like that.'' One of his best friends is Melissa, who trades record information and other tidbits with him. She and Roberts have never met, though; Melissa lives in California.
Roberts is hardly alone in the land of cyberspace communication. Prodigy is merely one of several computer bulletin-board services, from big-name companies like CompuServe and America OnLine to the more underground WELL and ECHO; together, they have created a vast electronic community, much of it entertainment-related. Every day, hundreds of thousands of messages zing back and forth around the country, on topics ranging from Simpsons trivia to excerpts of new books.
The phenomenon is not new Prodigy, the largest of the networks, went national in 1990 and now has 2 million subscribers. (Each pays $14.95 a month to get online; together, they crank out about 200,000 notes a day.) In recent months, though, the entertainment connection has intensified. Producers of TV shows like the stumbling Brooklyn Bridge, have logged on to gauge audience response; celebrities like Jerry Seinfeld have used Prodigy as a publicity tool, answering fans' questions through an intermediary. A few Depeche Mode fans on Prodigy got ahold of bootleg tapes of the band's new top 10 album, Songs of Faith and Devotion, before its release; the band's label, Sire, used the network to track down those responsible for distributing the pirated copy.
''We had to watch what we said,'' says David Wolf, 19, who usually logs on to Prodigy before and after classes at New York's Rochester Institute of Technology. ''They were watching us. Someone from Sire told us to knock it off.'' Wolf should know; he's a regular on the electronic Depeche Mode bulletin board, trading information about new releases, tour dates, bootleg albums, you name it a veritable electronic fanzine. ''I never thought I'd spend three hours a day on it,'' says Wolf, an advertising-photography major. ''But I know stuff about Depeche Mode I didn't know before, like mixes of different songs. It's a big circle of friends who wouldn't normally get together. A lot of people listen to their music and cry all day, but I try to stay away from them.''
Adds J.J. Fritz, 19, of Buena Park, Calif., ''I check in four times a day that's a lot. But I learn a lot on it like what Daniel Miller, who was their producer, is singing on 'Black Celebration.'''
''My dad got Prodigy to find out about stocks or whatever dads do on that thing,'' says Eleanor Fraser, 19, of College Station, Tex. ''And he said, 'You should look at this.' I'll spend two hours a day going through the Depeche Mode stuff.'' Like Roberts, Fraser knows what it's like to be an outsider. ''I live in a conservative town,'' she says. ''Almost everyone says, 'You are weird. You listen to that weird band with their weird music.' But if I'm upset, I listen to a certain song and it takes my mind off it. They have a consoling power.''
Kimberly Joseph, 23, logs on once a day, usually after coming home from her makeup-consultant job in Chicago. ''Some people tell you what Martin [Gore] is wearing this week, or they write, 'He has kids!' and get hysterical. A lot of girls got sad when David got married.
''Occasionally you get some for lack of a better word bozos. There's someone on there now who sends very nasty notes. He said, 'All you people who listen to Depeche Mode are mindless morons and you should all listen to Nirvana.' That stirred up a lot of comments. I wrote him back, 'Musical taste doesn't make you shallow.' He said, 'You're rude and stupid.' I just hope he goes away.
''A couple of us were looking for Black Tulip, a bootleg album,'' she adds, ''and [Prodigy] caught the message and sent it back. The censors can get you.'' Steve Hein, Prodigy's program manager, says there are no Prodigy censors but admits that the company's software scans messages for ''obscenities or racial slurs, or if it involves some illegal activity.'' A word like bootleg? ''I don't know,'' he says. ''It's a judgment call.'' (CompuServe says it doesn't monitor any of the messages that go out over its systems.)
Potential censors aren't the only threat. In July, Prodigy plans to institute a monthly fee for extra time on the bulletin boards. ''We might all leave if that happens,'' says Joseph. To protest the fees, in fact, Depeche Mode fans went off-line for a full day on April 15. Roberts feels the fee is ''kind of stupid,'' but for the moment he is looking on the bright side. He and Melissa plan finally to come face-to-face in October, when Depeche Mode will be in the midst of a U.S. tour.
''So we're playing The Dating Game now, huh?'' says Depeche Mode's Andrew Fletcher with a laugh. The band has yet to see any of the Prodigy bulletin boards, but, Fletcher says, ''it sounds amazing. It's crazy what kids are doing these days.''