After a close friend moved away, we began communicating by computer. We met each week in her favorite chat room and would type for hours. One night I had a high fever and swollen larynx, and felt too sick to chat, so I dashed off a brief note canceling our cyber-plans, then fell exhausted into bed. My friend seemed upset when I phoned her a few days later. "If you don't want to go on the Net with me," she said, "just say so."

Perplexed, I retrieved the last e-mail I'd sent her. It read "I won't be able to talk to you on the computer tonight. I have laryngitis."

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