scene | The new world of ChatRoulette

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man with mustache devouring a sandwich.

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bare torso on a dark screen.

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children laughing and dancing somewhere bright.

hi!

hi!

dance!

:O

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Meet Chatroulette, a cult of randomization emboldening online predators with the prospect of virtual gratification, and too frightening to brave alone.

A Web site that pairs users at random through audio, video and text chat with other visitors around the world. Exhibitionists proudly display their genitalia, unruly teens toss up middle fingers for sport, and then, the lonely, vacant faces. There are swarming masses of self-conscious suburban girls, Japanese soldiers, sadomasochists from Brooklyn, amateur surfers in Melbourne, mostly inebriated college students — bored or depraved citizens of a new virtual universe, subject only to “stop” and “next” buttons that can call up a new screen but cannot curb the unpredictability.

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bashful teenage males, stoned and grinning.

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attractive young woman with red hair. forlorn?

The girl peered out at us from her boxy perch. Green eyes and an innocuous tuft of bangs. Her apartment in the background could easily have been on Dwight Street. She wasn’t as imminently next-able as the rest. She spoke of friends graduated and gone. She showed us her overweight cat.

Not everyone on Chatroulette is a budding Ted Kaczynski. Ten minutes later, we had exchanged names and locations. Fifteen, Facebook friends and Google acquaintances. Her name was Allie, an English major at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, who thinks “humans are not inherently malicious.”

Wicked or not, it’s an absurdist cult, institutional randomization. Everyone on Chatroulette is there to get off somehow. It’s a hookup culture without sobering repercussions or sheets to wash. It’s humanity in a pill, and side effects vary.

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dubstep dj from copenhagen.

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dorm room girls with whimsical up-dos. panting — could be 12, could be 27.

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older man enthroned, certainly someone’s father. dangling toilet paper before the screen.

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Every one of the global millions who have tried their hand at Chatroulette could write a different testimonial. Perceptions of the Web site depend largely on a visitor’s physical appearance and ability to deploy a gimmick, a stunt or costume to capture a viewer’s attention.

Journalist Sam Anderson, 32, recounts his journeys into Chatroulette with playground shame in a recent New York Magazine article. He laments the instantaneous rejections experienced as disinterested faces popped in and out of the video feed entitled “Stranger.”

Anderson clearly didn’t realize how many other ordinary middle-aged men stumble through Chatroulette incapable of turning a social profit. Yet scores of cute, teenaged bloggers have praised the site as “totally better than YouTube.” Other blogs have pointed out the “raw human experience” and “basic human connection” and other romanticized flourishes focused more on the personal than the digital.

The Web site siphons the many puddles of Internet sewage — pushy perverts, lonely exhibitionists, belligerent gamers, bored adolescents — into a rank gutter of a meme.

And, globally, it’s attracting between 25,000 and 75,000 unique visitors each day.

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Chatroulette’s system has not revolutionized online interactions. It’s no ground-breaking new advancement. But it gathers long-developing Internet trends (networking, video-chatting, instant-messaging) and streamlines them into an alarmingly simple interface. If not a synthesis, it’s the next step on a grand technological staircase. But does Chatroulette also answer some primordial prayer as much as it keeps the same old wheels spinning?

Lief K-Brooks, founder of Chatroulette’s text-chat only predecessor Omegle.com, features a framework drawn from the AOL chatrooms of the ’90s. Omegle’s tagline (“Talk to strangers!”) encapsulates 18-year-old founder Leif K-Brooks’s mission to challenge the notion of stranger as a derogatory term.

“In our society there’s this intense fear of strange things,” K-Brooks told me from his dorm room at the University of Vermont. “But the Internet removes so many risks and fears of physical contact. It’s crucial that we not be afraid of interactions just because we don’t know someone, maybe even healthy to meet those we have nothing in common with.”

K-Brooks said that Web sites like Omegle and Chatroulette can help many overcome this fear because they’re instantaneous and require little commitment. But he also said that this accessibility comes at a price.

“I know there’s a lot of pornographic activity no matter where you look on the Internet,” he said. “Chatroulette seems to be draining the perverts away from Omegle.”

So on a random Tuesday at 1:51 a.m., 4,158 people hover over their computers to chat up one another on Omegle. Chatroulette’s players number over 15,000. A small town’s worth of perverts. One nation under randomness.

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little boy in a beanie.

Hi

Hi

Where are you at?

Places. :)

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three girls, too much makeup.

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1 man, 2 fish. !!!!!?

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Hi Ali,

It looks like we’re going to meet! I’m slightly terrified but I’m confident it’ll be fun — or at the very least, memorable.

Amherst is dead tonight and it’d be nice to escape for a bit. My friends have thesis meetings tomorrow morning so it’ll just be me.

If you need to reach me, my cell is 978.835.****.

see you soon!

- Allie

We told her we would throw a party in her honor.

The next day, we met the girl from the Net.

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That randomness of Chatroulette facilitates its climate of brutal absurdism.

Hannah Brückner, director of undergraduate studies in Sociology at Yale: “Complete lack of social control, no repercussions when these people misbehave, no reverberations within a social network. Like all technology it can be used for good and for bad. There’s potential for finding relationships and solidarity, but also meaningless interactions.”

You: Meaningless?

Brückner: “Expectations are formed in everyday life; when we enter a taxi, we only expect the driver to drive. We feel safe because we have these expectations.”

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And yet the expected stream of random faces abruptly gave way after I frantically nexted one of the site’s many masturbators to encounter my own live feed. I paused and considered my own delayed connection. A glitch in the system. Too familiar to comprehend.

What I did find was a button that enabled a kind of serial killing. In next-ing myself, had I next-ed a cyber Ted Kaczynski?

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Allie is intensely invested in the Internet.

She lives the digital life. Her car, her cat, her job, even her housemates all came from Craigslist.

“When you spend all your time tethered to a computer writing papers and researching, the last thing you want to do is spend more time on a computer,” she told me. Minutes later she answered a text from a girl who once drove her to New York for a weekend trip. They connected through Craigslist’s rideshare, a chat board where strangers can connect, coordinate travel plans, get into each others’ cars and cell phones and lives.

The Web’s big enough to make us forget.

And it tells us what to remember.

“My girlfriend was worried about us ending up like that grad student they found in a wall,” John said with a shrug. John accompanied Allie on her visit to New Haven, though her e-mail promised she could make the appearance alone.

Allie was surprisingly short in person. She and her companion stayed out of the walls. They appeared at their party, sipped Natural Light, and left endless questions in their wake.

Did you see Chatroulette girl? What did she do? Why did she come?

Allie had remained behind a screen. She said the exchanges with Yalies were “conversations like I might have with an aunt. You don’t actually care do you? I don’t want to talk about this and you don’t want to talk about this. But how do we move past it?”

She was sociologist’s Georg Simmel’s “Stranger,” a social type valued for her disconnects, for her virtual nature, not for her humanity.

We transacted the night she visited without obligation, just buyers and sellers in markets. Our exposure made economics of an evening out.

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Sociologists say that in modernity, we lose so many personal, intimate connections. Chatroulette is a place to confront that loss, to accept or reject it. When Allie materialized, she referred to us collectively as “the allies.” She called her experiences with the rest the Yalies she met “conversations like I might have with an aunt.” “This jaded little shrimp in a tawdry hat!” thought the Leering Editors. So much for expectations.

“Where are you from?” asked a boy at the party.

Allie smirked and drained the rest of her beer.

“I’m from the Internet.”

Comments

  • ’12

    annie le? really? not ok.

  • random

    interview with chatroulette creator, a 17-years old high school student from moscow: http://loca.ly/beGL2i

  • Pissed off

    I found this article to be poorly written and offensive. You can’t seem to think you actually learned 2 things about the people you are talking about. Pathetic.

  • himhim

    Silly chatroulette parody on youtube:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=elxohU9LBzk

  • amarie

    Alison – you were early on the Chatroulette story…most of my friends just recently started obsessing about the ‘speed stalking’ phenomenon. “…12 or 27?” – that’s literally the exact same thing I thought.