Oliver Bennett meets Philippa `Porkbelly' Perry, the Marje Proops of the Internet
The Internet, for all its world-changing hype, remains morally ambiguous. Some feel it "empowers" the individual; others think it may encourage sociopathic tendencies and fear it is addictive. There are even those who think the Net is nought but a seedy undergrowth pullulating with perverts.

It is reassuring, then, to find those who are going on-line for the benefit of humankind. Philippa Perry has become an Internet "agony aunt", and for the six months in which she has been agonising in earnest, she has come across the gamut of human dilemma. The basement of her Islington house has become a focus for problems near and far; her beige box a garden fence in the global village.

After her child Florence started school, Perry bought a "rig" for excitement's sake and became immediately hooked on an "interrelay" chat group; something like a global CB radio. As many of her correspondents sounded like "southern shack people" Perry tagged herself Mrs Porkbelly; a name prudently chosen so that she could retain her female identity while sounding unattractive enough to deter obscene e-mail. After a short while Perry, who trained and worked as a counsellor for two years before her child was born, began to receive serious e-mail, to which she responded in a serious way, and she decided to set up as an agony aunt. She developed her own web site: "As easy", she says, "as filling in a form".

Yes, she says, she does thrive on problems; but only in that she likes to solve them. "I'm interested in human puzzles and dilemmas and how they can block human potential," she says. "I'm not a `got to help people' addict." What she hopes to bring to her task is "the skill of listening".

There is much subterfuge and false identity on the Internet, but Perry's policy is to take each query at face value. While a correspondent's first post may be laced with defensive irony - to ascertain whether Perry is genuine - they often follow through with a real concern.

The Perry constituency includes "a diversity of correspondents: children, lovesick teenagers, professional businessmen-types, and quite a lot of mothers at home." They come from across the English-speaking world, but even so, some mail suffers in translation. It took Perry a while to find out that when American women wail about the terrible state of their "bangs" they are referring to their fringed haircuts rather than something saucy or sinister. Many of Perry's correspondents confide that they feel they simply do not belong: an easy delusion to indulge, perhaps, when stuck alone talking to a screen.

The problems range from the banal to the life-threatening; though any that Perry feels need specialist advice are given leads to agencies. Some of her responses are brisk; others compassionate. To a man who is concerned that his wife is hooked on colonic irrigation - "she hangs out with her `hi-c' friends and I don't belong" - she replies: "Loosen up. What have you got to lose except a load of shit?" Another writes, "Dear Philippa, where can I buy size 10 fetish shoes?" Perry responds with a list and adds, "Don't be embarrassed, the outsize department staff have seen it all before."

Then there are the tougher ones: a man being stalked by a pregnant woman a la Fatal Attraction; a woman whose irascible mother is squatting permanently in her flat; a mother disturbed by responses to her breast-feeding; a young football fan abused by an alcoholic mother. Despite being financially unrewarded for her agony work, Perry takes a commendably professional attitude to it, and will never breach confidentiality.

Sometimes Perry headlines postings so that net-surfers can pick up generic responses to common problems: "Fear of Commitment or Just Not Sure Yet" is her memorable tag for the classic male "fear of settling down" problem.

Perry has now started to receive fan-mail; well, fan e-mail. "If Kurt Cobain had found your page, we'd have a new Nirvana album by now!" is one of her favourites. Such praise is, of course, its own reward to this Marjorie Proops of the pixel.

8 Philippa Perry's agony web site can be found on http://ourworld.compuserve.com/homepages/mrsagonyaunt/