'Talk to strangers'


Thursday, April 2
BRATTLEBORO -- When Lief K-Brooks, an 18-year-old from Brattleboro, created the online chat site Omegle, he had no idea it would become an overnight sensation -- he was just a young person interested in the Internet who had a unique idea he wanted to try.

"No way -- I wasn't anticipating anything this big," he said. "I thought it was a huge success when it had 100 users on the first day."

Since March 25, the day K-Brooks launched the site, usership has exploded to more than 150,000 per day with an average of 2,500 people logged in at one time. He did an interview for the New York Post Tuesday and was preparing for an Australian Podcast later that afternoon.

The Web site allows users to log in and immediately connect with another person for a one-on-one chat.

What sets this site apart from other online communities is the anonymity of it; no personal information is exchanged, not even a screen name. On Omegle, you are "you," and the person on the other end goes by the name of "stranger."

"Normally people associate online because they share a common interest, but if you only talk to people who are the same as you, you're not going to learn much," K-Brooks said.

"My goal is to connect people of different interests," he said, "so they can learn from each other and broaden their horizons."

The site has been made so popular through online news sources like gawker.com, which ran a story about the site and its creator, that soon its bandwidth might not be able to handle all the traffic.

K-Brooks pointed out that a lot of computer applications would have already quit after being so strained.

"I've been thinking of ways to make it more efficient, but I made it pretty efficient to begin with," K-Brooks said.

It's so simple yet effective that one of the most frequent comments he's received from users is how reminiscent it is of AOL chatrooms, a mid-90's phenomenon that K-Brooks is too young to remember, though K-Brooks' affinity for computers was apparent from a young age.

"I thought he was a little too young," said his mother, Donna K-Brooks. "When he was 4 or 5 years old, he was fooling around with his father's Mac Plus."

"He basically taught himself," she added. "We are not computer savvy at all -- we especially were not back then. And a lot of it started before he could read, so I don't know how he was able to do it."

When K-Brooks was 8 years old, he asked his father if they could do something together.

"I said, 'OK, what would you like to do? Play a game, read a book?' He said, 'lets do a Web site for your business,'" said K-Brooks' father, Steven K-Brooks.

And they did; before long, Steven K-Brooks had a one-page Web presence thanks to the help and encouragement of his 8-year-old son.

By the time he was 11, he had already launched his first Web site, called e-critters, where artists could submit their renderings of animals.

Users could come to the site and "adopt" the various virtual pets.

K-Brooks said he wasn't surprised when people began approaching him hoping to get their work featured on the site.

"When you're a kid, things just seem normal because you don't know what to expect," he said.

K-Brooks is currently home-schooled. This fall, he plans to start his first semester at UVM. He plans to major in computer science but isn't sure what career he wants to embark on after graduation.

And even though he thinks people could stand to broaden their horizons, he said he didn't create Omegle because he became bored with online communities dedicated to computer programming.

"Not at all," he said with a smile, raising his hands in the air. "That was not the reason; they have helped me out a lot. I think they're great."

Jaime Cone can be reached at jcone@reformer.com or 802-254-2311, ext. 277.


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