Web site encourages conversation between strangers

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(Host) If you haven’t heard of Omegle, it may just be that you’re not hanging around in the right circles. Or maybe we should say, cyber-circles. Omegle is a website  that brings together pairs of random strangers for a one-on-one chat room conversation.

The popular site is the creation of a home-schooled Brattleboro teenager. Its motto is, ‘Talk to Strangers.’

VPR’s Susan Keese has more.

(Sfx  banging on keyboard)

(Keese) In a room at the Brattleboro library, 18 year old Leif K-brooks is demonstrating his site. He hits the blue button that says, Start a new conversation.

(K-Brooks) "It just says, you’re now chatting with a random stranger, say hi. So I say (types) a random stranger."

(Keese) The stranger types back, Hi, with an exclamation point. Brooks asks where he’s from, and the answer comes back  ‘The United States."

(K-Brooks reads) "Uh me too. What part?"

(Keese) The screen informs us that the stranger is typing. K-Brooks reads the words that appear.

(K-Brooks) "The great Plains."

(Keese) When I tried out Omgele I had an interesting conversation with a high school student from Turkey. This stranger turns out to be a graduate student in math, and he tells us that he’s on this site a lot.

 (Brooks) "I like the concept. Strangers are such interesting people."

(Keese) K-Brooks couldn’t agree more. He programmed Omegle so that each time  a person logs in, he or she is randomly paired with someone else  who happens to log in at the same time.  The resulting one-on-one conversations have an element of surprise and possibility, which sets them apart from ordinary chat rooms – or from real life.

(K-Brooks)  "Normally people make friends with each other based on common interests, which is completely reasonable, but I think if that’s the only way people associate with each other that will create sort of a stagnation in people’s lives where they won’t ever talk to anyone who can really teach them anything. With Omegle hopefully  people will learn things from each other and broaden their horizons."

(Keese)  K-Brooks says he’d been doodling ideas in his notebook for about a year before he actually started programming it this winter. He launched the site on  March 25. It took off immediately.

(K-Brooks) "It sort of hit Twitter and Tumbler and all these different social sites and people just ran with it. It got featured in a lot of blogs and it got very popular very quickly after that."

(Keese) When I tried Omegle recently, a window in the corner said that 3008 people were also having conversations with strangers on Omegle at that moment.

(K-Brooks)  "On an average day it peaks at 2,700 or so concurrent users."

(Keese) K-Brooks says he’s been told people in different countries use it to improve their English skills. Spammers also try to use it for their own purposes. Fending them off is one of the few maintenance jobs the site requires.

(Brooks)  "There are automated systems to detect that and block them from the system, but they’re always finding ways around that, so I have to write new code that blocks whatever method they’ve found of spamming the site."

(Keese)K-Brooks has been programming computers since  he was ten or eleven years old. He learned from books and online tutorials.  – and by trial and error. He learned to automate tasks he considered repetitive. When he was growing up his mom decided he should send her an e-mail to confirm that he’d finished washing the dishes after supper – even though they were in the same household..

(Brooks)  "So I wrote a computer program to send it to her every night."

(Keese) K-Brooks says being homeschooled gave him more freedom to pursue things like programming. It also made the computer more central to his education and his life.

(Brooks)  "A lot of my friends are on line friends."

(Keese) That could change next year when he heads off to the University of Vermont, where he’s been accepted. He plans to major in – guess what – computer science.

For VPR News, I’m Susan Keese.

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