Melissa Lipton was sitting in her M Street office on a Tuesday morning when her computer chimed its friendly tone to say that she just received an e-mail.

She clicked to open it. It was a personal letter, written by a man she didn't know to a woman she didn't know but who had passed it on to a female friend who passed it on to another.

The story was oh so familiar.

. . . You seem like a nice person, and I don't mean this as badly as it might sound, but . . . I immediately rule out women who put up too many barriers . . . I do this simply to economize on time . . . Now, maybe you'll find someone who's so taken by a single dance with you that he's willing to negotiate by email for a chance to trek to your suburban hideout to plead his case . . .

It went on from there, an astonishingly blunt brush-off dressed up as a lesson on dating etiquette. It was signed "Bryan Winter."

How typically D.C., thought Lipton, a 31-year-old sales manager for a hotel chain.

She forwarded it to 12 friends.

For countless thousands of young women in Washington, this e-mail has become a crucial bit of intercepted intelligence from the battlefields of dating. It was a confirmation of their worst fears about singlehood in D.C.--that it really is that bad out there, that eligible women really do outnumber eligible men, and that, yes, the men all know it. And it was a warning: Watch out for this one. And so they passed it on, from co-worker to group house neighbor to fellow bridesmaid to soccer teammate, in an ad hoc sisterhood of strangers that could only have come together through the Internet.

Bryan Winter's letter seems to have gone everywhere in Young D.C. Within days it has breezed through Capitol Hill offices, tripped through the PR agencies and software start-ups, blitzed almost every nonprofit and law firm in town.

Meanwhile, in a house on MacArthur Boulevard, the telephone rings. Then stops. Then rings. And rings. And keeps ringing.

This is the house where Bryan Winter lives. No, not that Bryan Winter. Another one. Not that it matters much by this point.

The Wrong Men

Who is Bryan Winter?

Three weeks after his words exploded through the District, his identity is still a mystery.

The Washington Post tried to trace the e-mail backward to its original author or original recipient by contacting previous senders, but the trail went cold. The Post also contacted various Bryan Winters listed in the public record.

This Bryan Winter is not the Wisconsin-based Web site manager who is married and has a child but who has nonetheless received dozens of scolding e-mails from strangers who find his name on the Internet and assume he's the guy.

"I'm hoping my 15 minutes will end soon," he frets.

He's not Brian Winter the soon-to-graduate Georgetown medical student, even though he fits the suspect profile as a single 27-year-old--please note it's an "i" not a "y" in his name, he says quickly.

"It's a good thing I have a girlfriend, otherwise I'd be persona non grata around this town," he said. "Everyone hears the name and says, 'Are you the guy?' "

And he's definitely not Bryan Winter the 40-year-old stylist at Georgetown's Ipsa for Hair. As the only same-spelling Bryan Winter in the District phone book, he seems to have born the brunt of the outrage.

In the first two weeks of May, he and his wife received "hundreds" of harassing phone calls at their home. Most were hang-ups. But one caller stayed on the line, not speaking, just playing some kind of music. It was a scene out of "Play Misty for Me." Creepy.

"It's gone from funny," says this Bryan Winter, "to pretty scary."

The truth is, there's no proof that the Bryan Winter in question actually lives anywhere in the D.C. area--if he exists at all. The e-mail has swept through New York and Los Angeles, where many of the senders and readers are convinced that Bryan Winter walks among them, not us.

Only one thing is certain about "Bryan Winter": He's sure got a way with words.

Bryan's Song

The e-mail begins with a preamble by an unknown author:

This is an email that a friend of mine received the other day from a guy she knows nothing at all about. She met him while out dancing and gave him her email address. When he emailed her, she emailed him back with a few get-to-know-you questions . . . like 'what's your last name?' This is how he responded:

"I am at a stage in my life where I'm looking seriously and systematically for someone I can share my life with. You seem like a nice person, and I don't mean this as badly as it might sound, but I don't have time for twenty questions by email. I met five girls Saturday night, have already booked a first coffee with three of them, and meet more every time I go dancing . . . and I go dancing at least three times a week.

"I immediately rule out women who put up too many barriers. I don't do this because I think there's anything wrong with them, nor do I do it because I'm arrogant. I do this simply to economize on time.

"I know that dating in this city is difficult and scary for women. But keep in mind it's that way for the guys, too. Most of all, remember that you're competing with thousands of other women who don't insist that the man do all of the work of establishing a connection. And they live closer.

"Now, maybe you'll find someone who's so taken by a single dance with you that he's willing to negotiate by email for a chance to trek to your suburban hideout to plead his case. But you might not. And if such a person does exist, and you do happen to cross paths with him--what do you imagine a guy that desperate would have to offer?

--Bryan Winter"

The last word belongs to one of the early forwarders.

In the hopes that this email might get back to him after being seen by countless thousands of young women along the way . . . please send this on to a friend!

The Shame Game

Which is exactly what happened. And along the way, a Greek chorus swelled.

freak! anybody know him??? And:

watch out for dc men like brian winter!

oh, you gotta love dc men. . . .

this sounds like 1/2 the DC population

Just when i start to believe that intelligent things can come from a man's mouth (or mind) . . .

Within hours, Bryan Winter was the sneering talk of break rooms and happy hours across the region. For a brief moment, he was almost the male Monica, breaking out of the city's faceless mob of young career-starters and bar-hoppers to become a symbol of his generation and class.

Bryan Winter's name was sullied not through mass media but through a characteristically small-town strain of old-fashioned gossip, of the kind that once could shame someone into exile from the community.

But unlike in the typical small-town gossip circuit, Bryan Winter's name was not being bandied about by people who knew him, or even knew of him, but by educated young professionals--lawyers and policy wonks and consultants and meeting planners who didn't hesitate to fire the "send" button.

It could be the anonymity of e-mail. Or perhaps the strange intimacy of e-mail. Or the credibility that seems to accrue to a piece of e-mail when you get it from a friend, who got it from a friend, who got it from a friend, so it must be for real.

Either way, we may be seeing a lot more Bryan Winter situations, says Tara Lemmey, executive director of the Electronic Frontier Foundation.

"The Internet changes the nature of community or social circles," she says.

"We frequently pass judgment or gossip around among social circles; but social circles have never been so apparently interlinked. The normal degrees of people you talk to becomes amplified."

With the Internet, she adds, the normal flow of gossip undergoes a powerful time compression. "You can do the kind of information transfer in a couple of hours that would have taken a couple of weeks in backyard and hallway conversations."

Bryan as Everyman

Some of them feel bad about it now. A little.

Even if they didn't personally call the MacArthur Boulevard Bryan Winter or e-mail the Wisconsin Bryan Winter--and all the women interviewed by The Post insist they did not--they know that they played a little role by forwarding the e-mail and spreading the name around town.

With the benefit of a week or two of hindsight, some sheepishly speculate that the letter may have been a hoax, just another urban legend making the rounds.

And yet: It rang so true.

"I could picture it taking place in some bar on the Hill, with a bunch of snotty little Hill interns," Melissa Lipton says. "It's very believable for this city."

Lipton, who is single, guesses that Bryan Winter is younger, probably in his twenties. She admits that she hasn't run into anyone that obnoxious lately. But "the arrogant tone in it wasn't too off-base from some young men I used to encounter."

Indeed, says Colleen Guste, a 25-year-old architect, Bryan Winter seems to exemplify a certain kind of driven young person who gravitates to Washington.

"Everyone comes here with an agenda and a task list of things to accomplish before they leave," says Guste. "It creates a competitive environment, and people say and do things that take so much gall--all to make sure they get what they want."

Where else but Washington, after all, would someone straight-facedly confess his "systematic" approach to romance, or turn down a date "to economize on time"?

"Thank goodness I brought a good guy with me," says Guste, who is engaged.

But why did so many women feel the impulse to forward the e-mail to so many friends? Jennifer Mendelsohn--who happily forwarded the letter--understands.

She sympathizes with the anonymous woman who met Bryan Winter that night out dancing, and understands how she must have felt when she got his e-mail.

"Things like this happen to you, and there's no one there to witness it," says the 30-year-old freelance writer. "Dating is usually a solitary experience--there's nobody there to see how mismatched the guy at your doorstep is."

But with the Bryan Winter e-mail, there was proof. "You didn't have to just say, 'This guy did this awful thing to me,' " she says. "It was documentable and replicable and forwardable."

Many people have noted one particular unfairness of the e-mail chain: It doesn't include the letter from the young woman that kicked it off. Were her questions really that innocuous? Perhaps she was overly coy, trying to string along a vapid e-mail flirtation. Perhaps she was overly prying, trying to gauge his social and career status before making a date.

In some circles, the letter is a sexual Rorschach test--women see one thing, men see another. Some men were perplexed by the female outrage: Gee, at least he's being straightforward with her. . . . Isn't that what women want?

But even men who are unsympathetic to Winter are reluctant to step into this minefield. One young lawyer who said he was deeply troubled by the male-bashing aspect of the e-mail chain declined to speak for attribution, calling it "dating hara-kiri."

Even some young women find themselves conflicted on the topic of Bryan Winter. Kathryn Wenger, a 24-year-old Senate staffer, was initially appalled--she's the one who added "OH MY GOSH! THIS IS AWFUL!!!!" before forwarding to 10 friends. And she still maintains that Bryan Winter's comments were unspeakably rude.

And yet . . . "I can understand what he wrote," she confesses. "With our age group, we're all at the point in our lives where we're all looking for someone we can relate to. . . . Even though it came out really poorly, I'm glad someone came out and said, 'I'm too busy for this,' " she says.

"You can end up e-mailing back and forth 50 to 60 times a day. It takes up a lot of time. Especially when you should be doing work."

The Innocents

The first phone call was probably the strangest. At that point, Bryan Winter knew nothing of the e-mail with his name on it.

And he had no idea who the young woman caller was, who asked for him by name and spoke in a faux-flirty voice, making strange references that he only understood in retrospect.

"And then she gets to the point where she says, 'I think I might have the wrong person.' " Winter remembers. "But no apology, just 'Bye.' "

Then there was the one piece of old-fashioned hate mail, with a stamp and an envelope. It was a printed copy of the infamous e-mail. In the margin, someone had written: "You think you're all that and a bag of chips, but you're just a crumb!"

For the battle of the sexes being waged in his name, Winter has little patience. "If that's what you believe about men," he says, "you shouldn't be dating in the first place."

After a few days of harassment, he started screening his phone calls, and put a new message on his answering machine.

"This is Bryan Winter," it begins. "I buy my coffee at Safeway, I only dance in my kitchen, and I don't even have an e-mail address.

"But if you would still like to leave a message for me--or my wife, Deborah--please do so after the tone."