Do you remember the first time you turned on a webcam to video chat with somebody? There was something scary about it. Pictures and text were rudimentary, but willingly casting your moving likeness into the machine, and watching someone else do the same, had a kind of exciting eeriness to it.
We were young and so was technology, and resolution was dull, so our conversations were grainy specters, occupying a box of light with choppy movements.
I wasn’t much of a webcam user growing up, but I do remember Omegle. A chat website that did away with the formality of registering an account and allowed you to hit up random strangers, it had the appeal of a seedy bar, in that encounters were gambles and shadows never stayed shadows for long.
The internet as a concept promised the infinite capacity of connecting with others, and Omegle gave that promise a chaotic edge. Virtually any actual human being was available to view, at random. And while you could opt to just chat in a window, the true Omegle experience involved using your webcam. Cast your hook, pull up an apparition. A soul. And in return, lend your likeness to the machine.
The webcam, and by extension Omegle (and Chatroulette I guess, but I think Omegle had a tighter hold locally) represented a composite of divides irreversibly crossed — the divide between stranger and friend, digital and real, lie and truth. It also provided a possible (albeit tenuous) solution to loneliness. You could see other people from behind the comfort of a screen, and never be lonely again. There it is — a human being that your senses could detect.
If the mirror was the window to the soul in more superstitious times, the webcam was its eldritch successor, where gazing upon it would return to you someone else’s computer screen reflection.
If the mirror was the window to the soul in more superstitious times, the webcam was its eldritch successor, where gazing upon it would return to you someone else’s computer screen reflection. The metaphor of the occult is not misplaced here —the internet was and still continues to be described as power at your fingertips, like magical energy crackling from a robed sorcerer’s sleeves.
As Meghan O’Gieblyn wrote for her Paris Review column “Objects of Despair,” “The internet is one endless hall of mirrors where the line between our selves and our shadow souls is blurred.” They used to say mirrors had the power to trap souls. Where are we now? Our personal information has been harvested into data banks, so we live as ghosts in shells.
Log into Omegle now and all you’ll find are bots, propositioning you in the guise of a hot single in your immediate area. It’s not like Omegle held a monopoly over the thrill of interfacing with strangers — virtually every social media platform offers this thrill. Plus, for the longest time, our default mode of communication was through text and images, not projected images of ourselves moving in real time.
But that changed a couple of weeks ago.
Recently the video call has taken on a new kind of pertinence. The COVID-19 pandemic and resultant lockdowns have barred so many of us from exiting our homes, and sealed off almost every avenue of social interaction. Gatherings are prohibited. With the exception of people we live with, we take care to be at least a meter apart from any human breathing the same air we’re breathing.
So we’ve resorted to Google Hangouts. Or Zoom, if you’re trendy. A couple of weeks ago (or was it three? God, I don’t know, my sense of time is shot to hell), I went on a video conference call with a few friends. Knowing full well that this lockdown would bring with it terrible feelings of isolation (loneliness itself its own epidemic), we thought instead to kick it before it got us.
We reached out to each other for companionship because, by God, we weren’t going to let this plague take away from us the best part of our weekends: our friends. I’ve seen people joke about learning astral projection to bypass social distancing rules, but using the webcam is as close as we can get to what the act basically is: deploying our intangible selves in a tangible way.
I was talking about the supernatural so much because it feels like everything that sustains us as people has been atomized. So much of what we depend on to make us happy is reduced to the futility of cells.
We reached out to each other for companionship because, by God, we weren’t going to let this plague take away from us the best part of our weekends: our friends.
I guess, earlier, I was talking about the supernatural so much because it feels like everything that sustains us as people has been atomized. So much of what we depend on to make us happy is reduced to the futility of cells. And I think I talk about souls so much because death surrounds us. At every turn, every pixel the scroll bar travels, there’s another report of a medical frontliner gone too soon, another meager call for donations for the disenfranchised to subsist on, as our government keeps us apart and kills us slowly.
I wonder what would happen now if we all went on Omegle together. There are so many of us quarantined and nailed in place, acting out our stir craziness in the digital void. What if we abandoned the other platforms for a little bit? Facebook and Twitter feeds are saturated with doom and anticipatory grief, but on Omegle, there’s no news cycle, no apocalypse-adjacent story. There would just be people. We could log on and spin the wheel, and chat with a kindred spirit also sweating out their cabin fever. How is it there in your country? How have you been passing the time? What’s the first thing you’re going to do when you get out?
This virus makes me feel like nothing but a body. I want to feel like a soul.
Art by Neal P. Corpus