Whither the [random, online] conversation?

I gotta say, the internet has changed.

I remember the days of using Powwow and FreeTel, of the “chat with a random person” actually being useful on ICQ.

These days, the only time I get contacted by a random person online is if a) they’re inserting V1@GR4 spam in my email, or b) they think I’m someone they know. It occurred to me tonight that the landscape has changed, because now the only time someone contacts me randomly is if it’s the virtual equivalent of a wrong number.

I think it’s a trust thing, though. I remember the few times I tried to contact someone randomly in the last year or two, I was greeted with general suspicion. It seems like the media and the paranoid parents have finally managed to make the internet a place where any stranger is to be treated as the stranger-with-candy. Or maybe it’s the co-option of instant messaging technologies into the corporate environment; can’t have our busy worker bees bombarded with messages from potential industrial spies.

Before I move on, let me stop one line of criticism before it starts – I have plenty of offline friends, make more on a regular basis, and have no problems doing so. I have a girlfriend, am well-adjusted, and social, so just give up – I just trashed your argument before you really thought of it.:-)

Why do I care? Because I actually miss the days of chatting it up with someone I don’t know, getting a window into another culture or hearing about current events from far away first-hand. I also don’t really enjoy visiting Yahoo! chatrooms for a weak version of that experience. I’m sure it’s just nostalgia, but it feels like the internet I actually liked has disappeared.

Not that there are very many people I met back in those early days with whom I still converse. I’ve grown, and I’m sure they have as well. People grow apart, have different interests, make different friends. Still, there is that handful, the five or ten people with whom I suspect I’ll be talking even five or ten years from now. It’s that which makes me miss the old days – that suspicion that out there are people who I’d genuinely benefit from talking to. As I said earlier, it isn’t that I don’t have offline friends, but during the time that I must spend online as part of my work and research, it’s nice to feel a sense of community while in cyberspace. I read and type fast enough that it’s not a serious distraction to talk to someone intelligent and interesting, and it hardly takes any time at all to block someone I don’t like.

Take it or leave it. Things being what they are, I’m sure that the people with the open, curious mindset who actually like communicating with the world (and not just their little close circles of friends and family) have migrated elsewhere, away from ICQ and the other mainstream IM communities. My only curiosity is, where would elsewhere be?

One thought on “Whither the [random, online] conversation?”

  1. I totally agree with you. I,too, miss chatting it up with someone I didn’t know. It was great. I thought freetel was such an awesome chatting site. I loved the sound it made when someone was “calling” you. I actually met a girl who I ended up later seeing in person from the freetel. Anyway, I just want to say that I share the same sentiments as you.

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