The claim of “anonymity” may not be enough to promise safety when users log on to a new social networking web site that aims to connect total strangers from around the globe.
That’s just one reason why local law enforcement is urging students to steer clear of Omegle.com.
The online chat room provides users the ability to talk to anyone in the world at any time of day without having to reveal a single piece of their identity.
Just one click on the “Connect me with a Stranger” box, and the conversation begins.
“Basically, the site pairs you with a complete stranger and you don’t know any information about them at all,” said Seaholm junior Megan Smith. “All you see is the prompt ‘you are now connected with a random stranger’.”
And that, said Birmingham Public Schools Officer Ron Halcrow, is an exceptionally bad idea.
“That’s a recipe for disaster,” Halcrow said.
Halcrow said this web site is not only unsafe, but unneeded.
“I don’t know why anyone would want to go on there just to talk to random people. You could be talking to a guy, a girl, or somebody way older,” Halcrow said. “It’s better to be safe than sorry and just assume that everybody’s lying because you just don’t know.”
Still, the random nature of the site is what attracts guests to the page. Omegle allows its users to remain anonymous, something that sites like Facebook and MySpace can’t offer.
“It’s pretty safe because it’s so random and you don’t have to let the person know anything about you at all,” Smith said. “You just talk about whatever you want. When you’re done talking to them or just bored and want to quit you just end the conversation. You’re completely in control.”
The site is easy to use, and is accessible to anyone with internet service.
“Anyone can access it through Google,” Smith said. “There isn’t any subscription or login or anything.”
Users don’t even need to disclose their name to access the chat room.
“You can chat with strangers and it’s so easy,” said senior Katy Kaugher. “All you do is go to Omegle.com and you can start talking right away. You don’t have to put in a name or anything and anyone can use it.”
With the ability to remain completely unidentified, users often fake a personality to be safe or even just to get some laughs.
“Really it’s ridiculously random,” said Smith. “One person pretended to be a pirate and we had an entire conversation in pirate context.”
“We lie when we’re talking to people so you never know who you’re talking to which is part of why it’s fun,” said Kaugher. “You can create a whole new person.”
But with the anonymity of the web site comes its share of issues. It allows older people to pretend that they are younger, luring in younger users who haven’t considered the consequences of revealing their age.
“Everyone says they’re 18 but they’re probably not,” said Kaugher.
The site, created by Vermont 18 year old Leif K-Brooks, is billed as “a brand-new service for meeting new friends.”
The premise of the web site, according to the page: “When you use Omegle, we pick another user at random and let you have a one-on-one chat with each other. Chats are completely anonymous, although there is nothing to stop you from revealing personal details if you would like.”
E-mails to Brooks were not returned by press time.
Attempts by this reporter to communicate on the site were used as she went undercover as a 20 year old boy from Texas. Some of the responses returned from various “strangers” that the sight randomly matched were bizarre, while some were simply mundane and uninteresting.
One person expressed in the first exchange that she had body issues by saying, “Hi, I’m a girl, I’m thirteen, and I’m overweight,” then disconnected.
Many of these strangers were oddly inclined to give out more information than necessary, even if it wasn’t asked of them. One of them even described their whole life story, including their name, age, place of residence, their parents marital status, their own relationship status, and what clique they were in at school. This same person also expressed that there are a lot of creepy people that enter the chat room by saying “Ya, totally. A LOT.”
The use of profanities and crude language were abundant, and many people disconnected when the reporter revealed to them that “he” was a boy.
These conversations that The Highlander witnessed on Omegle indicate the skepticism may be warranted.
Halcrow said all students should stay away from sites like these, even if it promises ambiguity.
“If you allow people to be your friends and you don’t know them then you’re going to run into these troubles like harassment, giving personal information and being induced to give this information,” Halcrow said. “I’m not a big fan of Omegle, not at all.”