Unlike professional information services such as CompuServ, which charge an initial fee and an hourly rate, electronic bulletin boards are usually available for the cost of a local telephone call and sometimes a small donation.
The PC version of the corner bar is fast turning into the global village, with a growing number of bulletin boards sharing messages throughout the country and the world. Cities and towns throughout the United States are replete with bulletin boards, most of them run by computer hobbyists. A good source for bulletin-board listings is the Computer Shopper, which can be found in most computer stores and on some newsstands.
And what do people find to discuss with their PC pen pals? Just about everything, from pets to philosophy and from mountain climbing to home buying.
The Chat Lounge (887-0986) in Abington offers a discussion forum and dating service where people can "talk" directly to one another via their PCs. Alan Shinberg, president of Abington Computers and one of the board's SYSOPS (a term for systems operator), explains that this feature is unusual among bulletin boards.
"Because we have nine telephone lines going into the computer, up to nine people can talk to each other at the same time," he says. People using Chat Lounge can take their chances and hit the "W" key and talk to whoever else is using it at the same time. People also can leave messages to arrange a time to meet on the bulletin board.
When people first call the Chat Lounge and connect with the system (known as "logging on" in compu-speak), they're asked to fill out a detailed questionnaire that allows them to meet others with their same interests and sexual orientation.
Besides the dating forum, there are sections ranging from special interests in legal issues to medicine to music. Shinberg says he knows of several prominent Philadelphia lawyers and judges who - using pseudonyms - exchange gossip on the legal forum.
The Chat Lounge costs $45 a year, but is free for the first three months.
The closest thing to a global village resides on the PACS Multi-SIG bulletin board (842-9600). (Its full name, the Philadelphia Area Computer Society's Multi Special Interest Group board, is a mouthful belying the system's simplicity.)
On the Usenet section of the PACS bulletin board, there are about 18,000 posted messages in 300 special-interest news groups from around the world. Slightly more than half of the articles are on computer and scientific topics, the rest on general areas of interest ranging from gardening to astrology,
from baseball to skydiving.
You can post a message to be seen by others around the world or you can correspond with one person privately by using the board's electronic mail.
This bulletin board's uses are endless. If you have a party to go to or want to liven up office conversation, read through the humor file. A recent current-events joke had to do with a new magazine started by Jimmy Swaggart called Repenthouse.
If you're looking for vacation ideas, you can browse through the travel section. Recently there were messages about the pros and cons of different cruise ships, including the service, the ports and wheel-chair accessibility; stone circles in England, and the better ribs restaurants in Chicago.
And if you're trapped in a house of sports-phobics, have no fear. You can plug into the sports section and get the latest lowdown and express your opinions on baseball, hockey, basketball, wrestling and football.
You can even use the bulletin board to engage in a lively debate on abortion rights and learn about Amnesty International's humanitarian efforts.
The PACS bulletin board at La Salle University is available to computer club members only. Membership is $20 per year and information is available on the bulletin board or from Steve Longo at 951-1255.
People interested in real estate, from first-time home buyers to commercial speculators, will find the Real Estate Connection (969-5362) helpful. Forums range from tips on buying and selling a home to property management for landlords and investment strategies.
When you post a message on this board, you reach not only people in the Philadelphia area but people from California to Boston as well. Board operator Al Alper, with Alper Associates Inc. in Philadelphia, says that the board ''echoes," or repeats, conferences from eight other real estate bulletin boards in the United States.
Recent discussions on the Real Estate Connection include tips on home selling, starting with the basics of improving first impressions by keeping the lawn well-groomed. The repairs and home-and-gardens sections recently included conversational threads on plumbing and installing a deck. Alper adds that many times novices seek advice, and contractors and other experts will offer their expertise.
Pet and wildlife lovers will find their natural PC habitat at D-Place (676-0810). Systems operator and animal lover Al Joffee in Philadelphia started the bulletin board to answer people's question about computers, and recently added a pet and wildlife forum. "There are millions of pet owners out there, and now they can use their PCs to talk about them," Joffee says.
Popular discussion threads include ideas to keep the cats from scratching the furniture - although Joffee says he gave up 30 years ago - and kidney failure in older felines. Wildlife topics tend to be seasonal, with discussions of birdseed in the winter and nature walks in the spring. People also use D-Place to compare notes on veterinarians.
After someone logs onto the system for the first time, Joffee calls him or her back (person-to-person) before giving security clearance. He gives novice PC users his personal phone number to call for advice. He receives about 10 to 12 calls a day.
Because computers are his hobby, Joffee doesn't mind the interruptions. Now retired after 42 years in the engineering department of WCAU-AM, he says, "I divide my time between the family, the computer, the cats and the garden - and not necessarily in that order."