Whiz kid

Leif K-Brooks sits with his laptop open to display www.omegle.com, a Web site that he created. (Zachary P. Stephens/Reformer)

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Saturday March 13, 2010

BRATTLEBORO -- Last March, when Leif K-Brooks of Brattleboro first designed and launched the Web Site Omegle, the locally home-schooled student never thought it would attract thousands of users a day, or that it would help put him through college.

As a teen whose gift with computers was apparent at age 3, he took on the project just for fun.

Back at his family's Brattleboro home for spring break, the 19-year-old reflected on the past year.

"It's definitely been pretty crazy," he said of the site's overnight success.

With its slogan "talk to strangers!" Omegle is an online service for meeting friends that doesn't use screen names or require any personal information from the user. It randomly pairs one visitor with another and allows them to chat about whatever is on their minds.

It's been a whirl-wind year for Leif -- he was even interviewed by the New York Times.

"It is perhaps not surprising that Omegle has arrived in the age of Facebook, where etiquette and accountability threaten to squeeze some of the fun out of Web surfing," said the article by Douglas Quenqua.

As a freshman computer science major at the University of Vermont, Leif is using the revenue from the site to help him through four years of college. He generates income from the site's advertising and its iPhone application, which has proved to be pretty popular.

Each "app" costs the consumer 99 cents, and Leif sees 70 cents of each purchase. He said 300 to 400 people buy the app each day.

Leif was receiving financial aid his first semester, he said, but he's now no longer eligible because his income is too high.

"I'd rather have (the aid) go to people who really need it," he said.

Getting his application for an iPhone app approved by Apple was a little nerve-racking, but worth it in the end, he said.

"The approval process was extremely slow and kind of scary, because if they reject it I just put a lot of work into it for nothing," he said. It took three weeks, maybe longer, for Apple to notify him that his app was accepted, he added.

The application allows people to use Omegle from their mobile iPhones. Leif said he's looking forward to exploring any and all other mobile capabilities for his site.

"My goal is to get Omegle on more mobile platforms," he said. "Blackberry, Android ... I'd run it on toasters if I could."

Omegle is visited by more than 300,000 users each day with about 3,500 to 7,000 people logged onto the site at any given time.

Leif said that the anonymous nature of the interactions on Omegle has led to some uses for the site that he never could have anticipated.

"I've heard that people in foreign countries -- China, for example, use the site to practice English," he said. "I've observed it and I've gotten feed-back e-mails from them."

If you're wrestling with a personal decision and you're worried your friends won't give you their honest opinion, you could always use the site to get a truly objective perspective.

"[Some people use it] to get an opinion from someone not directly involved in their life," Leif said.

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Being in charge of a site that sees so much daily traffic is a big responsibility for a college student. His first week at UVM, Leif received an unusual phone call.

"An FBI agent called me at school and said someone had threatened a school shooting in Sweden," he said.

It turned out that one person in Sweden had been chatting with someone from Finland and mentioned that he or she was planning to bring the gun into school on a certain day. The Finnish user called the police, who contacted the Swedish authorities who called the FBI.

Leif spent days combing Omegle's logs, looking for certain key words in users' chats that might indicate the potentially dangerous person was back again and chatting on the site.

"I had to look through the logs every day for two weeks," he said. "It took up a lot of my time."

Everything was fine in the end, he said; no red flags went up as he monitored the site logs, and the date of the threat came and went without any school shootings that Leif is aware of.

The scare caused some alarm for Leif's father, Steven K-Brooks of Brattleboro. He was caught off guard when an FBI agent called his home.

"He sounded just like you would think an FBI agent would sound -- like in the movies," Steven K-Brooks said.

"My first thought was that Leif had been involved in a hacking prank or something," he said.

Leif said he would take care of the situation himself, and his father trusted him.

"I felt confident he could handle it," Steven K-Brooks said. "He is an adult."

Steven K-Brooks added that he has always tried to support his son's talent with computers while treating him as an adult. He said he never gave his son money unless he truly earned it.

"(His mother and I) got the better end of the deal for a while I think," he laughed. "He was doing things for a wage that an adult wouldn't take."

That changed, he said, when Leif designed his father's first ever business site.

"I wanted to give him a professional wage because he did a top-notch job," Steven K-Brooks said. "I did some research and gave him what I found to be fair market value."

And how did Leif spend the money?

"The first thing I did was go out and buy a laptop," he said with a sheepish grin. "It felt pretty great."

Leif said that for now he's concentrating on his classes and making small changes to Omegle to make it easier to use without altering the site's main function.

"I've done some minor things; the basic functionality works the way it is," he said. "It has a purpose, and I feel like that purpose has been fulfilled. I don't want to go around mucking it up and changing everything."

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