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NetDestinations: 'Love Stories' On The Internet
Saturday, September 11, 1999

By Jonathan Oatis

NEW YORK (Reuters) - ``Love conquers all things,'' the poet Virgil wrote. That may not always be so, but a collection of heartfelt firsthand accounts on the ``American Love Stories'' Web site shows that love is a potent force against potential obstacles like race, age, disability, distance -- and even death.

The site ( is the online counterpart to the Public Broadcasting Service's ``An American Love Story'', a 10-hour television documentary about the 30-year interracial marriage of Bill Sims and Karen Wilson. The documentary begins airing Sunday and ends Thursday.

``American Love Stories'' contains information on the series. But the site is a powerful experience in its own right, presenting moving first-person accounts of romantic love -- and giving visitors the opportunity to submit their own love stories or to exchange views about love in online discussions.

The discussions are one of the site's most interesting aspects. The ``Dialogues'' section tries to encourage meaningful online exchanges about love and other topics.

The non-profit organization Web Lab, which is producing the site, sets up the small-group discussions in a way aimed at preventing the verbal firefights that often break out in Internet discussions.

The dialogues will begin formally Monday morning, the day after the documentary opens. Test dialogues on love's ability to bridge differences can already be read on the site.

The love stories -- 61 of them as of Friday -- can be found in the ``Stories'' section of the easy-to-navigate site and center on the power of love to overcome differences.

Given the documentary's focus, it is no surprise that interracial love is at the center of some of the stories. In one story, Dom, an Italian-American, tells of his marriage to Tina, who is of black and Cherokee descent. Both share a love of books, opera and the blues.

``Underneath it all we recognized that we were more alike than different,'' Dom writes. ``White man and black woman. Unrepentant atheist and devout Christian. Italian and American. The differences were obvious. But it was obvious, too, that in overcoming these differences and forging a strong and nurturing relationship we pretty much are ... what America is all about.''

In some of the accounts, the differences involve reversal of traditional male-female roles. A disabled man writes of how he and his able-bodied wife, Cheryl, live their lives: ``I do the dishes, the laundry, and the bathrooms while my wife is the primary bread winner, working as a senior systems analyst.

``I enjoy decorating, shopping, and picking out clothes. Cheryl puts up the shelves, fixes the dryer when it breaks, washes the car, paints and wallpapers.''

Love also surprises. In a story titled ``When You Least Expect It -- Expect It!'', a 33-year-old woman named Pam tells how she met her husband -- a man 30 years older than she -- six years ago at her grandmother's funeral. He was the funeral director. The major difference for this couple is age, and Pam discusses it frankly.

``I consider myself a very old 33-year-old and Sam a very young 63-year-old,'' she writes. ``I tell people that when you put Sam and Pam together and average their ages you get SPAM at 45 years of age! We both feel like our actual age should be around the mid-forties.''

Elsewhere, in ``Love at the Edge of Life'', a woman writes movingly of falling in love with a cancer sufferer named Rachel, only to lose her to the disease 1-1/2 years later. `` ... My gratitude for the joy we shared now outweighs my grief,'' she says.

The stories, which are added to the site daily, were culled from hundreds of submissions that began arriving in April, Marc Weiss, founder and executive producer of site creator Web Lab, said Friday.

The stories began coming after PBS put an icon on its home page ( inviting people to submit their accounts. The icon linked to the ``Love Stories'' Web site. In addition, other Web sites either linked to ``Love Stories'' or offered their own story submission pages.

``We've gotten a good response,'' said Weiss, who expects even more stories to arrive after the TV series begins Sunday. Submissions can be edited for clarity or length, but Weiss said editors working for Web Lab have taken a hands-off approach, letting people tell their stories in their own voice.

The ``Dialogues'' section represents a refinement of a Web Lab technique aimed at fostering meaningful online discussions, according to Weiss. Very often, Internet conversations ''deteriorate into something pretty miserable,'' he said.

Weiss blamed the fact that, in typical online conversations, people can enter and leave as they want in what he called ''drive-by posting'' and that Internet users can hide behind the cloak of anonymity.

``All these things conspire to lower people's level of accountability,'' said Weiss, the creator and former executive producer of ``P.O.V.'' the award-winning PBS showcase of independent, non-fiction films.

In the ``Love Stories'' dialogues, participants will be divided into groups of about 60 people and will be asked to commit to spend three weeks so that they start the dialogue together and end together. The groups will initially discuss one of three topics: bridging differences within relationships, the TV series, and issues affecting people 25 and under.

Weiss expects about 20 to 30 people -- the ``critical mass'' for a discussion -- in each group of 60 to stay with it. In such a small group, he said, the dialogue becomes more intimate and people get to know each other better.

``As it turns out, the people who get involved get really involved,'' said Weiss.

The site's producers do not moderate the discussions, giving participants the freedom to take the conversations where they want, he said. He cited one ``test dialogue'' that moved to a discussion of lovers finding each other on the Internet.

Some of the better contributions wind up in ``Featured Posts,'' giving the public the chance to read the most interesting stuff without having to wade through the entire section. ``People participating in dialogues read these things and kind of end up getting closer to the spirit of the site as a result of reading them,'' Weiss said.

A crucial element of the Web Lab technique is the initial composition of each group. Special software sorts information given by people who have signed up to take part in a discussion and makes sure each group has a mix of genders and geographical locations. ``We try to make sure each group is pretty diverse,'' Weiss said.

``They learn so much more from getting into a back-and-forth from someone they would never encounter in everyday life,'' he said.

The ``Love Stories'' dialogues represent the third set of such discussions produced by Web Lab. Earlier this year, it set up dialogues on the impeachment of President Clinton titled ''Reality Check'' (

The ``Love Stories'' dialogues will be active for five weeks beginning Monday, but the site will remain up indefinitely, said Weiss, who wants to encourage others to use the Web Lab discussion technique and whose organization is looking for partners.

``We would like to get other people using it and thinking of creative ways of pushing it forward,'' he said. ``We look at the Web as a transformative force.''

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(The NetDestinations column runs weekly. You can e-mail Jonathan Oatis at


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