Sunday, 9 August 2009

Talking to strangers

Internet security types, like me, are always advising people to be wary about who you are talking to on the Web. We advise parents to tell their children not to talk to strangers, and rightly so. In particular we try to advise teenagers about "stranger danger".

So, why was I not surprised when I was told about a fairly new site, set up by a teen for teens that is sweeping across that generation like crazy.

Enter Omegle - tagline "Talk to Strangers". Yes, it's a site that encourages you to chat to strangers on the web immediately without any controls, restricitions, nanny-words about being safe etc. Just dive straight in and chat to strangers about nothing. Waste hours chatting to strangers.

At the same time as being slightly "creepy" it is a great lesson in targeting customer needs, if you are thinking of creating a start up. Start with your customer, in this case teenagers, and think about their requirements. Two stand out. One - Annoy your parents by doing the exact opposite of what they tell you to do. Two - achieve this whilst wasting time in an entirely non-productive way.

It's wierd and compelling and apparently loads of kids use it in an idle moment. Sitting near your computer and mind wandering? Reach over to Omegle, click the button, chat to a stranger amongst millions somewhere in the word. If it gets boring, disconnect and carry on staring at the lightbulb. Brilliant ! And spooky! No wonder its so popular.

It's interesting to see how kids use it too. They are quite brutal. If the conversation is threatening, wierd or boring they just press the "disconnect" button and start another chat with a new stranger. Perhaps there is some useful learning going on here on how to deal with annoying strangers online - you disconnect them without a second thought.

I was explaining it to some of my technical colleagues and they were dubious. They said they think you are not chatting to a real stranger. They think you are chatting to a robot, a piece of simple artificial intelligence software that is able to engage in a fairly believable conversation by reflecting comments back to you. So I thought I would put this to the test. Here's what I got (I am YOU and the stranger is STRANGER).

Omegle conversation log


Connecting to server...

You're now chatting with a random stranger. Say hi!

A word of advice: "asl" is boring. Please find something more interesting to talk about!

Stranger: hi

You: hi, are you a real person or a computer?

Stranger: i'm a real person u idiot! :)

Stranger: female or male?

You: yeh, that's what a bot would say

Stranger: haha

Stranger: okay then how are u doing?

You: i'm doing wednesday, u?

Stranger: not so much really..... what is wednesday?

You: i'm pretty certain you are a computer program

Stranger: okay then i dont want to talk to a person who thinks that i'm a computer program!! see u

You: hey don't go!

Stranger: why?

You: i am from the future

Stranger: haha! u are not funny

Stranger: are u a male?

You: sometimes, but only after 6am and on green days

Stranger: are u sure u are okay?? because it doesn't sound like that to me..... call a doctor!!

You: i am a doctor

Stranger: yeah..... how old are u... doctor?

You: the square root of pi minus the height of the moon

You have disconnected.

So, was I talking to a person or a Bot? I think it was a person but I'm still not 100% sure. Have a play with it and let me know what you think. Horrific or harmless fun? And if you get arrested for grooming teenagers don't blame me!

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