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Lost in Cyberspace
'You've Got Spam'
© 1998 by H.B. Koplowitz

"You've Got Mail" <> is a romantic comedy about love and cyberspace. It's also a billboard for America Online <>, which is using the movie to promote its People Connection chat rooms where, it claims, you can find true love "just like the characters in the movie 'You've Got Mail.'" Since "You've Got Mail" may be the first exposure some people have to online relationships, they may not know what is real and what is made up. Thus, the following is not a movie review but a reality check of how the movie compares with the actual online experience.

Directed by Nora Ephron and written by Ephron and her sister Delia Ephron, the movie updates "The Shop Around the Corner," a 1940 romantic comedy about a Budapest shop girl, played by Margaret Sullavan, who doesn't realize that her lonely hearts pen pal is a fellow employee, Jimmy Stewart. The new version pairs Tom Hanks with Meg Ryan, moves the setting to New York City and changes snail mail to email.

As with any movie, you have to suspend your disbelief for the premise to work. But Tom Hanks as the typical guy you meet in cyberspace? Hardly. More like Dennis Franz. As for the Meg Ryan role, more like Kathy Bates. To make the story more believable, instead of Hanks having a successful, self-assured and independent girlfriend, he should have been hitched to a saggy stay-at-home wife and three sickly kids. And Ryan's mate, instead of being a successful newspaper columnist, should have been a dutiful shoe salesman whose biggest fault was that he didn't take sufficiently seriously his wife's newfound interest in bondage and submission.

One of the truer notes is the opening sequence, during which the Hanks and Ryan characters oh-so-cutely sneak around on their mates to read their email. Some other notes are not so true, such as the relative ease with which they are able to get online. Not once did they get a busy signal or suffer through a long delay. Nor did they get ever get bumped off-line in the middle of a conversation.

And then there's the name of the movie itself. "You've got mail" has become synonymous with AOL, thanks to all those AOL commercials. The terminally cute Hanks and Ryan mouth "you've got mail" when the voice says it, and the first few times you log onto AOL you might feel the same way. But "you've got mail" soon loses its elan because you quickly learn that what it usually means is "you've got spam," the email equivalent of junk mail.

The movie also glosses over chat rooms and cybersex. The Hanks and Ryan characters do meet in a chat room called "Over 30" and once exchange private real time "Instant Messages." But they never have cybersex, preferring to send emails debating the relative merits of Jane Austen and Mario Puzo. The reality is that online conversations often get explicit, and people often venture beyond the "featured" AOL chat rooms into "member" chats, where instead of "Over 30" you see names like "olderM4barelylegalF," or "M4Mdungeon."

For the plot to work, the Meg Ryan character can't know that her cyber friend is the Tom Hanks character. And as long as they are just cyber friends, it is at least plausible that they might agree not to exchange personal information. But once he asks to meet her, the otherwise savvy Meg Ryan character should have taken some precautions to ensure that he wasn't Dennis Franz, much less Anthony Perkins. The least she should have asked for was his name, not to mention an address and phone number. He also might have wanted to trade photos and talk on the phone first, just to make sure she wasn't Kathy Bates ... or Carrot Top.

The Tom Hanks character finds out who his cyber friend is by the end of act one, yet he doesn't reveal himself until the end of the movie, and this is the most dangerous liberty the film takes with reality. Because of the anonymity of cyberspace, situations often arise where only one party knows the other's identity. But taking advantage of that knowledge to manipulate a relationship is one of the cardinal sins of online "netiquette," and like most practical jokes, usually ends up backfiring. Hopefully the Meg Ryan character's reaction will not encourage anyone in the real world to try what the Tom Hanks character does.

© 1998 By H.B. Koplowitz, all rights reserved.

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