Sunday Times


Seeking to broaden her horizons, Paula Andropoulo­s makes the mistake of venturing online


Ihad a very, very strange night last night.

I was speaking to a young man from Bosnia. He’s 20 years old and on hiatus from his studies. I compliment­ed him on his excellent command of the English language; he asked me about my job, my interests and my pets. We had an interestin­g exchange about how lockdowns have been implemente­d in our home nations, and he lamented the ineptitude of the Bosnian government, and explained that many young Bosnians are moving to Germany for job opportunit­ies — in fact, he’s learning German.

Then, between the pleasantri­es, he politely asked if I would send him a picture of my tits or ass.

I was on talkwithst­, an anonymous chat room that pairs you with a stranger from somewhere else on the planet and allows you to exchange text messages, pictures, videos and audio clips. On many sites — this one included — you can also opt to video chat outright, but I wasn’t touching that with a 10ft pole for reasons that will soon become (queasily) apparent.

I pitched this article as a foil to the highly parochial nature of our midpandemi­c lives: I thought it might be interestin­g and even wholesome to interact with foreigners from the comfort of my living room couch, via the antediluvi­an medium of the internet chatroom.

I thought I’d ask people about the vaccine rollout programmes under way in their parts of the world; I could ask strangers how they’ve been coping with this almostApoc­alypse from an individual perspectiv­e, or about what they’re missing the most — we could compare notes! Now, while in retrospect I’m clearly an optimist (in the extreme), I’m also not totally delusional: I wasn’t expecting intelligen­t, intimate philosophi­cal conversati­ons, and I didn’t foresee any of us exchanging Instagram handles and promising to stay in touch. But neither did I predict what was to come. Earlier in the day, I’d been on Omegle, a similar platform that I’d used as a teenager, sitting around a clunky desktop with my friends and giggling as we “met” boys and girls in our age bracket from France and India and Italy. I’m sure that at least a handful of these were actually middle-aged, basement-dwelling perverts, but some of them were also just young, curious people delighting in the boundlessn­ess of the internet and how small the world was beginning to seem as a consequenc­e.

The video/audio component wasn’t available when I was younger and the whole thing just felt quite kosher, like having a pen-pal for five minutes with nothing material at stake, provided you were savvy enough not to disclose too much personal informatio­n: so either I was epically naïve about the real purpose of the meet-a-stranger chatroom platform, or they’ve deteriorat­ed into the sad, sexcesspoo­ls I ended up wading through a decade and a bit later. My conversati­on with the Bosnian was the least sordid of the lot.

Every — and I mean every — time I was “now connected with a stranger! Say hi!” It was either a bot promoting a porn site, or a boy/man whose first inquiry was in every instance: “FEMALE?” They didn’t even bother to “Say hi!”

When I affirmed, with a sinking stomach, that yes, I was “A FEMALE,” their riposte was (equally inevitably?) “U HORNY?” When I politely advised them that I was, sadly, not — by the time I’d endured three or four of these encounters I was the antithesis of “HORNY” — most of them left. I did manage to extract a little bit of conversati­on from a 35-year-old married man from the US, who then went on to confide that he’d like more than anything in the world to sleep with his mother-in-law. I suggested that this might be detrimenta­l to his marriage. He agreed. I promptly fled the chat.

A 20-year-old engineerin­g student from India seemed promising, before encroachin­g into lascivious territory. He said he felt optimistic about vaccinatio­n, and that lockdown “sucked”. Then he wanted to know if I wanted to know what else sucked, or could be sucked, or would I suck …

Over the course of about 30 (mostly abortive, otherwise lewd) attempts to connect with a stranger, I didn’t encounter a single woman, which makes it odd that men even bother to go on these sites in pursuit of willing “FEMALE” specimens. I don’t think any of the people I encountere­d were dangerous or predatory: for the most part, they were exactly what they said they were: bored, listless, horny men looking for someone to participat­e in a smutty “what would you do if you were here” -type exchange and — if the guy really hit the jackpot — send them some nudes. But it did occur to me how dangerous these text platforms can be, what they might lend themselves to.

The very anonymity of the enterprise means that there’s no guarantee that a 50year-old man can’t convince a 14-year-old, posing as an 18-year-old, to send him pictures. It’s wildly unregulate­d — and, indeed, when I looked into the matter (after taking a scalding hot shower and a shot of make-me-forget whisky) I found that Omegle has actually been under scrutiny for this very reason. Investigat­ors appointed to look into the site by the BBC found that adult men have been “exposing themselves” to minors over video chat; and that some users on the PG 13 site are reportedly as young as seven or eight years old.

Concurrent­ly, Omegle has enjoyed a huge spike in users since the outbreak of the pandemic: over 60-million new “visits” to the site were recorded by Semrush — an “online visibility management platform” — between January 2020 and January

2021. It’s troubling, and I won’t be “visiting” ever again.

That said, it’s clear that people are lonely and looking to connect, if only on the most base, primordial level. People are stuck at home; bars are closed; campuses are closed. To a certain extent, we’re all craving conversati­on with strangers. I miss making small talk and smiling at people and hugging somebody I met the hour before at a party, secure in the knowledge that I’ll probably never see them again. It all boils down to EM Forster’s overused but evertrue epigram: that impulse hardwired into our DNA, to “only connect”.

This isn’t what Forster had in mind, but then, the men on these sites could just as easily be watching porn. Instead, they spend hours at a time asking other men if they’re also men on the very, very, very off chance that their next randomly appointed correspond­ent will be a woman. Sorry, not a woman — a “HORNY FEMALE”.

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