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If you're a university student, you've probably heard about the strange new internet sensation, Chatroulette. If you're a particularly adventurous sort (and you're immune to rejection), you may even have used it by now. If you're someone who's been thinking about it, but haven't gotten up the nerve, be forewarned: Chatroulette is not for the tender of heart, or those who are easily offended; in fact, much of the site's appeal seems to be it's ability to present disturbing images in rapid succession. You should also know that most of the participants are men and the interactions are not filtered, which means that some of the content is, well, not exactly stuff you'd want to share with the folks back home.
So what, exactly, is it? Chatroulette is a website that connects people using voice, text and camera technology - totally at random. It also gives these randomly connected people the ability to rapidly disconnect and move on with a click of the "NEXT" button. Most interactions last only a few seconds. In practice, the experience seems like a global, online speed-dating session for 20,000, only almost none of these people are actually interested in dating. Most of the time, the Chatroulette shuffle connects you with someone with whom you have nothing in common; on the other hand, if you're patient, and you're willing to sift through the debris, every now and then there's a magical moment:
With the cover of internet anonymity, you also should expect that there is a fair amount of deception going on. (I don't really think that was Batman, or even President Obama.) Experienced users explain that in the rush to gain and hold a strangers' attention in under five seconds, lies are commonplace. I don't want to sound cynical, but this means that the guy you were just talking to is probably not an Australian marine biologist, and in fact, he may not even be Australian.
If you imagine that Chatroulette must be the product of some technology think-tank, you'll be surprised to learn that it's the brainchild of Andrey Ternovskiy, a Moscow teenager who created the website as an amusement for him and his friends. For months the site's creative force was shrouded in mystery, but thanks to this article in the New York Times, that's no longer the case. That fact that a 17 year-old invented Chatroulette and runs it out of his bedroom should also give you some idea of the level of innovation involved.
I spoke to one of our student staffers who uses Chatroulette regularly, to gauge his impressions of the experience. He told me it was a bit addicting, and that after a time he became desensitized to rejection as strangers from around the globe reached across the screen to click "NEXT." He also said that the key, in his opinion, was to do or say something quickly to grab the other person's attention, even if this meant being rude or a bit shocking. Almost everything said, I was told, was a lie, but this was expected. On average he will have one or two real interactions per hour, for no more that 10-15 minutes each, although once he talked to a young lady (who claimed to be from Chile) for 90 minutes. He said that most of the people he saw seemed to be in college dorm rooms.
Will Chatroulette change the way we interact, and open up new dialogues? Probably not. The falseness eliminates any real communication, and the need to shock will drive away almost anyone wanting to make a real connection with another human being.
So what is Chatroulette then, in the big scheme of things? Not much. It's really just one more thing to amaze, horrify and amuse us for a few moments until we get bored with the shallowness of it all, and begin searching for something more meaningful, or at least something more amusing. Think of it as a digital hula-hoop, or Rubik's Cube - only with a forty-year old man pretending to be Batman looking at you while you play with it.