Chat Roulette, a website that randomly connects users via webcam, embraces the ‘Completely Public’ trend already shown by sites like Facebook and Twitter.
Andrey Ternovskiy, a 17-year-old Russian teenager, created the website in Nov. 2009. The site employs three simple rules: be 16 years of age or older, stay clothed and please click “Report (F2)” if you do not like what you see. The website uses Adobe Flash to access a computer’s webcam and microphone. The site greets you with two video boxes, aptly named “Partner” and “You.” These present a live video stream from each users’ webcam. When users start a new session, they are connected randomly to any other user worldwide, hence the name “Chat Roulette.”
This complete randomness makes for genuinely interesting encounters. For example, in my trial session, I met a UCLA student who wanted to teach history and two Britons extolling NHS, their country’s version of universal health care. Later, I spoke with a Queens University student who wanted to help autistic children.
Chat Roulette allows users to meet people all over the world they would never have met otherwise. When going to the site, one of several events may occur. First, and most likely, the person to whom you are connected immediately disconnects based on your appearance. After using Chat Roulette for about ten minutes, I started doing the same. Second, you may find someone with whom you would like to speak. They may wave or type in the chat box. These are the situations in which I met people like the UCLA student. Third, and most worrisome for parents, you may find something disturbing or even pornographic.
The premise behind the site–complete randomness–is what facilitates disturbing images. If a user sees something they “don’t like,” they may report the other user. This works well, to an extent; after a person is reported three times, they are banned from the site for ten minutes. However, exhibitionists still use the site, making most parents wonder whether the site should be limited to those at least 18 years old.
After using the site for thirty minutes, I closed my window somewhat shocked by the rawness of the whole experience. It’s not that I felt disturbed that exhibitionists used the site (I know they exist), but rather it felt surreal to imagine such instant connectivity to people worldwide. Excluding the perverted minority, most users of the site were like me: young and eager to talk. The fact that I was able to speak with a Brazilian, who used Google translate to speak English, amazed me. In what other situation could I so easily meet people so anonymously and so globally?
Nick Bilton of the New York Times described Chat Roulette as an “unnerving world where you are connected through webcams to a random, fathomless succession of strangers from across the globe.”
Much of the appeal for Chat Roulette comes from curiosity. Who knows what person you might encounter next? Bilton pins the lewd users at about 10 percent of the site’s visitors. I agree, but still caution those who aren’t ready to quickly click away from an image they don’t like.
Chat Roulette represents another step forward in social networking. When Facebook became popular, many were worried about posting pictures online for anyone to see. Twitter revolutionized social networking even more and allowed people to broadcast their lives in 140-character increments. Is Chat Roulette the next logical step? The site has seen more than 1.5 million visitors already, but many think it is a fad bound to fade. Those naysayers are likely the same ones who laughed at Twitter, which now claims more than 75 million members and has characterized such global events like the earthquake in Haiti and Iranian elections. And as more users utilize the site and block other users, there are fewer people abusing the service with inappropriate images.
Meeting people randomly from around the world is what sparked my interest for the site. Chat Roulette allowed me to connect with other future teachers and understand universal health care from people who have actually used it. Meeting a Turkish woman shed some light on what Islamic countries (or at least those not at war) feel about America.
This knowledge and connectivity to complete strangers is enthralling, but at the same time, every jarring experience makes me want to shut my computer down. Chat Roulette can serve as a lesson in humanity, and I am not sure yet whether I like it. For potential users, Chat Roulette offers two options: first, don’t use it and remain in your day-to-day life, or second, explore beyond the microcosm in which you live, no matter the consequences. Perhaps those options, and the one which more than 1.5 million users have already chosen, is the true lesson in how people’s lives have changed due to the Internet.