It’s hard to follow internet safety news lately without coming across a mention of Chatroulette, a new website that randomly pairs users for video chatting. This is how is works: You go to the website, click “play,” enable your webcam, and you are connected to a randomly selected stranger. At any time, you can click “next” and you’ll be connected to another random stranger—and on and on.
The site was created only a few months ago by a Russian high school student who created it so he and his friends could “have fun.” The site now boasts anywhere from 5,000 to 30,000 users at any given time, all over the world.
Understandably, the “random stranger” aspect of the site has caused quite an uproar among internet safety advocates and parent groups. The site requires no login or profile, and there are no age restrictions. And letting teens video chat with random strangers all over the globe without any fetters is a very scary prospect for many parents. Sure, your kids could be chatting up a French violin virtuoso about Mozart, but they could also be talking to a 65-year-old man, suspiciously wearing nothing but a bathrobe.
But after hearing both the good and bad about the site, I decided to test it out to see if the hype and fear were worth the trouble.
Let me say this: The majority of my time on the site was spent watching one college-age male after another connect and disconnect with me without saying a word. (Strangely, many of them were shirtless and wearing sunglasses in visibly darkened rooms.) In fact, in an hour on the site, I only recall connecting with about five cameras where women were on the other end.
The shy ones
Another large part of my time was spent clicking “next” when the stranger on the other end purposely had their camera pointed at a wall, a doorway, ceiling, fridge, or other piece of interior architecture, or had simply muted their image.
There were also a handful of strangers who had pointed their camera at a sign reading “show me your _________.” The language varied a bit, but they all had the same gist. As well, about one in every 30 strangers was a male touching himself creepily, or worse. (Dude, nobody wants to see that; it’s not sexy; it’s creepy and disgusting.)
Parties and Entertainers
The handful of actually conversations I had seemed to be with people who were either at—what appeared to be—Chatroulette parties or who were actively trying to entertain users. The parties consisted of groups of around six college-age men and women who greeted my image with cheers and were very interested in where I was and what I was doing. I chatted with these people about how hard it was to find “normal” people on the site and about the disproportionate number of young men not wearing shirts (but wearing sunglasses). Once the novelty of connecting with a “normal” person wore off, I would be disconnected without warning and thrown back into the randomness.
The entertainers, as I call them, were people who were actively trying to amuse users. One guy was singing karaoke and wanted me to dance with him, which I did. Another was wearing a lion mask and we talked about his potential to have some cubs and a pride of his own some day. And yet another played me the main lick from Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man” on his guitar.
It will die a quick death
I would be remiss if I did not say that Chatroulette is NOT a place for children or teens and probably not a place for most adults. Besides the creepy men touching themselves, there were also plenty of rude hand gestures thrown my way—presumably because the stranger on the other end was hoping to talk to a girl and got my ugly mug instead. And at least one man I chatted with briefly seemed to be rolling a joint.
All-in-all, if the Chatroulette experience does not evolve into something useful and engaging, I have a feeling this fad will end rather quickly. With total randomness, extremely short interactions, and basically no way to revisit interesting strangers and block unseemly ones, the site won’t hold our collective attention for very long.
Staring at yourself
As a tool for communicating with the global masses, Chatroulette seems more like a scary peek into the side of our species that we would rather look away from, sweep under the rug, and forget about. But it is that aspect of looking into our seedy underbelly that is probably the most titillating about Chatroulette. The opportunity to peek into the strange and random lives of strangers is what lures our voyeuristic tendencies in, hoping for a chance to see something strange and slightly disturbing, like a car wreck that you can’t look at, yet can’t turn away from. That thought is attractive until you realize that the stranger on the other end is looking for the same thing as you look back at him.
For more opinions and information about Chatroulette, check out the video below.
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