Leaning back into a couch that's seen better days, Justin Isbell relaxes in his dorm room here at Buena Vista University - television blaring an MTV rap video, his wireless laptop perched on his legs in front of him.
He's just a pillow's throw across the room from one of his five roommates, Paul Guerdet, nestled on another worn sofa - also with his laptop up and running. Mr. Isbell and Mr. Guerdet are doing homework, surfing the Web, and glancing at MTV. And both are keeping a sharp eye on their respective ICQ lists - a powerful instant-messaging software that alerts these well-connected roommates if any friends on this campus, or anywhere in the world, log onto the Internet.
"I'm not waiting to chat online with anyone in particular," Guerdet says. "I'm a social butterfly, basically. But I don't have to go out of my suite and hunt up 30 friends. I can just relax right here. I can do homework or type my paper - and still chat back and forth." The phone rings. It's a call for an absent roommate. Guerdet sends an ICQ message to him.
"I can sit in my room and check if a book's in without going to the library," says Kristopher Simon, a roommate who ambles into a conversation about the pros and cons of wirelessness.
It has indeed made the library noticeably quieter. And the computer labs are dead now. Students visit others rooms - but maybe not quite as frequently. Many check ICQ first - and tote their laptops with them. It's part of the social scene now.
An hour later, four friends arrive, and soon their laptops are up and running. Chatter, MTV, and laughter collide.
"There's a lot more opportunity to communicate and ability to get things done," Simon says, shouting over the din in the room. "It helps me be more organized." But there is a downside.
"You can always tell if people are sending messages in class," Guerdet says. "If they're just mesmerized by the screen, they're probably using ICQ." Isbell concurs. "In some classes, I look around and see 20 people obviously chatting on ICQ," he says. "That's when I feel sorry for the professor."
(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society