Spinning Through Strangers on ChatRoulette

Move over, Twitter. There’s a new social networking site in town, and its name is ChatRoulette.

For all you n00bz out there, ChatRoulette.com allows site visitors to experience the interpersonal phenomenon known as “stranger chat,” in which a conversation takes place between two anonymous parties via a combination of webcam, microphone, and instant messaging. It requires no registration or login; all you have to do is hit “Play,” and a stranger’s face pops up on your computer. If you hit it off with them, great—and if you don’t, you have the option of clicking “Next” at any point during the conversation. And trust me, the option of “Nexting” someone is absolutely crucial, because you never know who—or what—you are going to get.

I haven’t decided whether ChatRoulette is the worst thing to happen to the Internet or a source of endless hilarity. On the one hand, it is tremendously entertaining. Within my first twenty minutes on ChatRoulette, I had talked to all kinds of people: a couple of frat-tastic bros who had consumed far too much PBR, a 10-year-old with a passion for Legos, and two emo kids who flipped me off before promptly disconnecting. Because there are no filters or restrictions of any kind, the experience of ChatRoulette has been compared to the primitive days of AOL, a time when users roamed freely in the vast, unrestrained expanse that was the early World Wide Web. While search engine pioneers like Google have devoted much of the past decade to taming the wildness that is the Internet, ChatRoulette is a throwback to the days before we had “buddy lists” and when people still used Netscape.

On the flip side, ChatRoulette is the epitome of sketchiness, which is arguably what makes it so entertaining. For one thing, sexual predators have never had it so easy. No longer do they have to start with asking the basic get-to-know-you questions (“a/s/l?” is, like, so 1990s) before launching into various cybersexual advances, thanks to the convenience of the webcam. Let this serve as a warning to the faint-hearted: If you spend enough time on ChatRoulette, you will undoubtedly witness nudity, since roughly one in every ten dudes you come across will have his pants down. Even if you are lucky enough to evade the weirdos openly masturbating, it is quite likely that you will come across a someone who greets you by typing, “Do something crazy” or “FLASH TITS FOR HAITI.”

In the first few moments of each interaction, both video chat partners immediately size each other up to determine whether the conversation is going to go anywhere. It feels almost primal, like animals searching for mates. Often the other person will hit the “Next” button before you can utter a word. There looms an overwhelming possibility of rejection.

Still, ChatRoulette’s viewership has seen a tremendous increase in the past couple months, particularly in the college-age demographic. I think this surge has occurred because college students have recently discovered that stranger chat is an excellent pre-gaming activity. Having actual, physical friends in the room makes it seem safer (and saner), and getting “Nexted” by your new online friends doesn’t seem quite as harsh.

I have had limited success with the site, in regard to sustaining an actual conversation. After soliciting a few friends to try it with me, we managed to have a few legitimate exchanges. We talked to two Brazilian guys who were “looking for romance,” but they were heartbroken when we told them we did not have instant messenger. Later, we found a guy whose dad was from Claremont, but we had to “Next” him when he started inquiring about our street address. Finally, I am certain that we saw “The Suite Life” star Ashley Tisdale, or at least a very accurate look-alike, but unfortunately she disconnected before we could get a word out.

After a few tries, it’s easy to see why this site is so addicting—precisely because it’s so outrageous. If you plan on trying ChatRoulette, I recommend looking for groups of people to chat with, because sometimes one-on-one can be intensely awkward. Also, be prepared for anything, and know that the “Next” button will always be there when you need it. But who knows? Your new best friend could be just one click away.

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