Friday, May 01, 2009

Chat Room 2.0, or How Fun Stuff Turns Creepy

A couple of months ago, I was reminiscing with a friend about the good old days of the internet. When we were in middle school, this friend got a computer, and better yet AOL, before anyone else we knew. This new communication both frightened and intrigued me. Back then, I took the Internet very seriously. My mother warned me, even before the media latched on to the child predators and cyber-bullying of the late 90’s and early 2000’s, that “most people on the internet are creepy old men.” Disregarding her advice, I remember AOL people searching for someone "age 12" with the same name as the drummer of my favorite band. I was pretty certain that this discerning criteria would result in a perfect Internet friend.

Looking back, I don't remember thinking there was any distinct difference between a real life connection or one on the Internet. Maybe that sounds weird now, but back then it wasn't.

Anyway, after chatting about our internet pasts, we started to discuss what would be the “next big thing” for the web. My friend jokingly suggested that a retro website that brought back the chat room would be really cool. I laughed it off, because the thought of a chat room today totally creeps me out, and I told her that only predators would use a website like that. I realized a few seconds later that I was basically repeating my mother’s warning from well over a decade ago.

Fast forward to two nights ago when another friend posted a link on FaceBook to a new website called Omegle with the tagline “talk to strangers.” It’s basically exactly what my friend had suggested a few months earlier - a one-on-one chat room with an unknown person. The website uses the red/blue conversation markers of AIM and takes it a step further by creating the ominous usernames “You” and “Stranger” for every chat.

I was curious about this site, so I decided to check it out. I talked to two different people. The first conversation was short but funny. They posted this:

(hard to read - it says "I'm Chris Hansen with Dateline NBC...Why don't you have a seat over there.")

The conversation with the second person included the following information:
1. He’s 23 and lives in Japan
2. He thinks I’ll be disappointed to find out he’s not a girl since he also assumes I’m a predator
3. He speaks English because America is the most powerful country in the world, but Japan is a close second
4. His favorite movie is something I couldn’t read because it was in Japanese characters
5. He does remember Street Fighter for Super NES, and he agrees that Chun Li is the best character. She’d be better if she was Japanese though, not Chinese.

Maybe I’m just being nostalgic, but this got me revisiting my original assumptions about the Internet. How serious are internet conversations? How is the future of Internet communication limited by the assumption that the “person on the other end” is a creep? Without the fa├žade of “social networking” friendliness, like on FaceBook for example, a basic chat with a stranger over the Internet is weird. Overall, I guess I would say I sort of liked the blunt aspect of Omegle, skipping the song and dance of acceptable social interaction. My early assesment of this website is that it's something I would never really use, but for me it pointed out how things have changed since my first interaction with the web and the ways in which people make it “OK” to communicate online.

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