In a recent post about communal storytelling via ICTs, Sarah Wanencheck highlights how digital media is breaking down the old narratological dualism of fiction and non-fiction. She argues non-fictional identities on social networks are communally constructed, in ways akin to the collaborative storytelling practices on fanfiction sites. Here I’ll look at how narrative roleplaying on the instant messaging service Omegle shapes new subjectivities on the social networks its roleplayers use to sustain and develop their fiction.
We perform identities on social networks, using filters and images, and timelines, and real-time updates – but those identities are never too far removed from those we perform in real-world frames. Roleplaying on Omegle offers a way of getting closer to other writers’ characters in ways which are paradoxically more personal and more immersed in the author’s creation than ever before. While fans wait for their favourite TV series or book series to start up again, they create narratives in collaboration with others which run parallel to their ‘real’ lives. What happens to the division between the fiction and nonfiction when we can experience being someone entirely different every day, within the frames of social networks like Tumblr and Facebook?
Roleplaying on Omegle and other social networks
Dennis Waskul defines narrative role play (RP) as individuals acting out “what their fantasy personas say and do in the various situations encountered and how they respond to the myriad of ongoing consequences that result from those actions”. Text-based roleplaying is well-established on instant messaging services such as ICQ and AIM, which allow unconnected individuals to chat regularly and instantaneously. There are also roleplaying communities (‘pan-fandoms’) on sites such as LiveJournal and Dreamwidth which construct far more elaborate and sometimes intersecting narratives involving hundreds of writers..
But Omegle’s instant messaging is characterised by total anonymity – there’s no private messaging function, and the only way to have any influence over who you speak to is to use the ‘what do you like’ field in the interface. There are no usernames, and conversational partners (identified only as ‘stranger’) can disconnect as soon as they’re bored (think Chatroulette with a text-only default). Conversations are logged by the site for up to six months and can be downloaded as PNGs, but unless you manage to exchange real life details before you disconnect, there’s no way to continue a story with the same person or interweave it with narratives from other Omegle users.
“In more traditional fanfiction forums, you can build a larger community of stories with more intricate plots. Omegle allows you to do it on the spot and fast,” a Sherlock Holmes fanfic writer called Dr Johnlock tells me. The form developed on the site is characterised by speed, and dialogue. Conversational partners write from narratorial perspectives very close to their chosen character, but which aren’t third person omniscient as he/she has to wait for cues from their writing partner to develop the story. The collaborators use the skeletal dialogue-like frame designated by ‘stranger’ and ‘you’ as boundaries between each character, using descriptive text (written by either partner) to set the scene. The point of view roves between these points, creating a super-intense literary version of what British people call ‘two-handers’ (a dramatic situation between two characters).
Despite the pleasures and advantages of anonymity, the roleplayers I spoke to wanted to establish deeper relationships and longer collaborations with strangers found on the IM service. Dr Johnlock describes Omegle as offering the quick dirty relief of a “glory hole in a disused gas station.” So writers became platform-hoppers, using the distinct interface of social networks like Facebook and Tumblr or forums like Fanfiction.net to further develop relationships, trying to overcome each site’s limitations by moving onto another one. Omegle logs are uploaded to Tumblr for posterity. Roleplayers compile Tumblr posts featuring prompts for their fandoms. Some popular Sherlock ones include: ‘Would you like this Mycake covered in chocolate? Meet me at my place.’ or ‘Where’s my jam?’
Sustained roleplay on social networks
Thescienceofshjw, who moved her roleplays from Omegle to Facebook, says: “Roleplaying is almost an escape for me, I can pretend to be anyone I like. I’m currently in a long term roleplay with a John Watson on Facebook. We’ve been together since May and our characters are now married. Roleplaying Sherlock means I’m a gorgeous, mysterious genius with an equally gorgeous army boyfriend. Something I’d never be able to do in real life.”
She is part of the fandom around the BBC’s modern adaptation of Sherlock Holmes, which primarily roleplays on Omegle and posts on Tumblr or within Facebook. The series famously exploited the gay undertones of Holmes’ and Watson’s relationship, inadvertently spawning a following which rarely refers back to the programme (or the books), and instead fixates on the endless push-and-pull flirtation of Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman’s Sherlock and John.
Given the anonymity of the medium and the focus on dialogue, roleplaying on Omegle can be very emotionally driven, and oriented towards building romantic fiction or slashfic (porny fiction which brings out gay subtexts in a fictional work). Anonymity allows far more slippage, in terms of sexual identities and genres of fanfiction such as canonical fanfiction and more controversial types. I don’t know Doctor Johnlock’s gender. For example, if Doctor Johnlock identifies as a straight female in the real world, then she and a female-identified roleplay partner, could be pretending to be two men covertly in a gay relationship when they “Sherlock” (used as a metonym for roleplay by the Sherlock community).
But what’s also striking is how much of the Sherlock Omegle-generated fanfiction centres on the domestic and the mundane. So many roleplays centre on the downtime of a relationship, bedding down together, pottering around together. There might be two reasons why- the immediacy of the form means that getting a more dramatic plot in motion is harder. The second is that the literary subjectivities created in Omegle are given a real-world frame when they are developed within social networks where we perform identities closely related to the ones we perform in the material world.
All these communally constructed identities rub up against each other, in a frame which corresponds to and informs and shapes the material world. There’s an equivalence between roleplaying in the digital world and the material world for writers such as Thescienceofshjw who sees identities in both spheres as something she does, as opposed to ‘is’. She’s creatively enmeshed the fictional world she’s obsessed with into her daily life routine, in ways which offer personal satisfactions not available in the original canonical work of the television series.
Roleplaying on Omegle and new forms of fiction
I also briefly want to look at Omegle-generated fanfiction has to offer in terms of innovative storytelling. One of the big problems identified by novelists complaining about the impact of digital media on narrative storytelling has been how to incorporate layers of texts, and emails and electronic content into literary fiction. Rather than asking how fiction in its paper-bound form can shape digital technology, we could see how the proliferating array of digital media is shaping new forms of fiction. We could see if new digital media can tell us bigger stories about our lives and ourselves, in ways which are unique and innovative and more responsive to how we consume/prosume creative work.
Omegle roleplay is already taking on new forms within the different platforms used by its writers. Roleplayers have also started cross-posting their roleplays on fanfiction sites, melding their work with greater chunks of descriptive text. This genre is in its early stages, resembling the first days of cinema when filmmakers played up the immediacy of the medium, making short films of flexing vaudeville actors still in stage mode. For example, some writers incorporate (fictionalised) conversational logs in the most blunt way by writing stories where their favourite fanfic characters are using Omegle.
This fanfic titled The Omegle Crew about the gay character Kurt from Glee is especially poignant: “Kurt was in his room, on Omegle. It was nice talking to strangers, especially ones like this who didn’t judge him. People on the internet seemed so nice compared to the idiots at McKinley. If they weren’t, at least he could disconnect the chat and talk to someone else. Kurt smiled. He liked this guy, who was random and weird.” In another fanfic, a manga fan called TeB360 imagines role-playing various anime characters on Omegle for unwitting strangers.
“I’ve started a collaboration with a roleplayer who I connected with over e-mail exchanged on Omegle after a particularly long session. If it sounds like an odd prostitute pick-up that becomes a love story – read Pretty Woman – it is,” Dr Johnlock tells me. There is something melancholy and full of promise in the superficially curt parameters of Omegle exchanges: ‘Stranger’, ‘You’ and the final poignant ‘Your conversational partner has disconnected’ which ends every exchange.
The ecosphere – the makeshift social network – generated by Omegle roleplayers has so many possibilities for the right combination of John and Sherlock – if and when they meet. One lonely heart posts on Omegle’s Missed Connections: “We were rping John and Sherlock, coming out with their desires, etc. And jam. And fussing. I’d really like to continue, but we never exchanged any IRL details.” Omegle turns us all into hi-tech Scheherazades, telling our stories to delay human disconnection. Sometimes people are forced to disconnect just when they’ve passed the threshold of strangeness with others, leaving the kernel of a story behind – just like in real life.
Zakia Uddin (@communitydisco) is a London-based journalist interested in digital culture, art and music.