We use the internet to talk to strangers so frequently that we no longer give such things a second thought. Every day, I log on to Twitter and see responses to my awful, awful tweets written by people—strangers—from all over the world. Most folks who comment on YouTube posts or in Facebook groups, hell, even those who swipe right on you on Tinder, are strangers.
We forget that talking to strangers was once one of the biggest thrills of the internet. Like most cheap thrills, it generated a lot of handwringing. This began during what media theorist Geert Lovnik calls the scientific period—when the internet was a place for scientists and the most tech-savvy individuals. In its earliest phases, talking to strangers online was more like calling up an unknown person in the phone book than a truly randomized experience; this, however, changed with the development of BBS (Bulletin Board Systems) and IRC (Internet Relay Chat), which allowed people to chat with strangers who were interested in similar subjects. With the invention of graphical user interfaces and the first internet service providers, ordinary strangers could log onto the computer and talk to one another for the first time on internet forums and, later, in chat rooms.
Naturally, teens were drawn to this, and, naturally, parents and pundits were afraid.
In the nineties and early aughts, a moral panic about chat rooms gripped the nation. Chat rooms were responsible, to name just a couple of examples, for the erosion of the English language and the return of serial killers. Countless episodes of TV true crime dramas, including Forensic Files and To Catch a Predator, worked over the notion that chat rooms were danger zones where predators lured vulnerable women and innocent children to their doom. (This moral panic was later revived with the advent of massive online roleplaying communities like Second Life and IMVU.) Born in 1993, I didn’t get to experience the cheap thrill of early chat rooms; by the time I was a netizen, chat programs had evolved into services like AOL Instant Messenger, Yahoo Messenger, and MSN Messenger, all of which required having actual friends—online or IRL—to talk to. These message programs themselves would eventually be supplanted, through the consolidation of the internet by massive companies, by Facebook Messenger, Google Chat, and the DMs we so frequently slide into on services like Instagram and Twitter.
There were anomalies, however, that popped up during this transition. Chatroulette and Omegle are still around, and there is still nothing else like them. I remember being in the tenth grade, the school year (2009–2010) that roughly coincided with the launch of these apps, and immediately trying them, mostly because I was lonely. They both work the same way: you press a button and find yourself connected either by text or by video to a random stranger. That’s it. Naturally, teens were drawn to this, and, naturally, parents and pundits were afraid.
Omegle and Chatroulette, with their brute simplicity, simultaneously demonstrate the internet at its most poetic and insipid. Theirs, like many stories, is one of hope and disappointment. Let’s start with hope.
The existence of these apps can’t help but raise the question: Why do people want to talk to strangers on the internet in the first place? The desire to talk to strangers exposes some of the more vulnerable parts of the human condition: loneliness and desire. (Of course, there are also the milder conditions of boredom and curiosity.) When the apps first launched, the (mostly negative) publicity they generated drove more people to use them, and the experience of using them became more diverse and fun. There were times when Chatroulette users dressed as Spiderman or Jesus; on Omegle, users might open the chat by roleplaying as a medieval knight on a quest or posing questions like, “What does it really mean to be alive?” You spun the wheel hoping to at least get one of these experiences in the place of inane small talk; deeper down, you hoped you would form a meaningful connection with a random person entirely by chance. I wanted to talk to anyone at all. This was human communication in its simplest form: a blank white box of text and a tenuous connection to global infrastructure through which anything could transpire. You became, along with the stranger you talked to, drops of water in a massive statistical bathtub.
In theory, these chance encounters were imbued with the magic of unlikeliness. In practice, however, most of them sucked. It turns out that of the thousands and thousands of people on Chatroulette and Omegle at a given moment, the preponderance are horny men looking for someone to jerk it to. I recently revisited Omegle in a fit of nostalgia and would like to present to you the first conversation I had:
Every conversation I had after that went pretty much the same way. Of course, we know that most men are horny, and many of them are desperate. Still, there is something distressing about the fact that so many users rely on randomized chat interfaces to thrust their sexual urges onto unsuspecting strangers. It’s partially a matter of statistics. Of the unknown thousands of Omegle or Chatroulette users who remain from 2010, many do so because they’ve found an off-label use for such a service.
This was human communication in its simplest form: a blank white box of text and a tenuous connection to global infrastructure through which anything could transpire.
Indeed, the fate of the randomized chat app is roundly depressing; more and more it seems a remnant of a past internet era. Still, I don’t think that nineteen thousand bad eggs on a chat site says all that much about society—but it does say a lot about the internet. Originally, it could be argued, the internet was a product of science in humanistic form. It was created in part with the purpose of uniting people across the globe in a free and open commons for the exchange of culture and ideas. In certain cases—Wikipedia; the Internet Archive; Foldit, the protein-folding video game that ended up yielding new discoveries; or the citizen science website iNaturalist, which has become vital for tracking both endangered and emerging invasive species—it has been used for this reason.
It is more common, though, as demonstrated in the case of the chat app, or social media, or the evolution of most corporate internet behemoths that began as relatively benign and useful, that online endeavors once sincere, helpful, or even humanistic in their aims have transformed into sinister initiatives—whether a den of jerk-offs, or an antisocial influence playground for advertisers, or a monopolistic surveillance apparatus. Omegle and Chatroulette, motivated by the simple act of bringing two random people together online, were a harbinger of the amorphous nature of a service that promised to unite us but now alienates us more than ever.