Taking a Spin on Chat Roulette

Disclaimer: this post is about Chat Roulette, and since Chat Roulette has a well-deserved reputation for featuring some of the worst aspects of the internet, proceed with caution

Recently I saw this video of a man improvising songs while he talked with people on Chat Roulette. It is awesome:

What’s Chat Roulette? You may ask. Ryan Calo at the Stanford Law School’s Center for Internet and Society (perhaps an oxymoronic title in the case of the site we’re talking about here, but let’s move on) explains:

Chatroulette sets up a video, audio, or text chat session with a completely random stranger. Either party to the arrangement can skip to the next. That’s about it.

Well then.  It most certainly is as Calo says, “much of what is terrible and much of what is wonderful about the Internet.” Chat Roulette, founded, interestingly enough, by a 17-year old Russian named Andrey Ternovskiy (definitions on what Russian Chat Roulette is vary, but none are especially wholesome) has taken the world by storm–Alexa puts it as the 695th most popular website in the United States.

So, who is on Chat Roulette? Casey Neistat’s unscientific study found about 70% men, 15% women, and 15% perverts (presumably almost all men as well). Video here:

My own experience on the site proved to be similar to Neistat’s. My initial intention in this experiment was to find out what it is that the perverts like about Chat Roulette. Suffice it to say that this failed miserably–they were not a talkative bunch. Instead, the vast majority of one’s time on the site is having people connect to you, see you, and immediately search for a new person. Rinse, lather, repeat. It can be both mind-numbing and defeating to the point where one feels incredibly grateful for  anything approaching conversation, even if it’s from a weird shirtless Dutch guy drinking a Heineken.

That’s not to say the site has no redeeming factors. I learned was that apparently hip hop is big on Poland, so that was new. One very nice user recommended Polish rapper Gural, but I don’t know if I could do the same in good conscience. And as with anything where you can quickly shuffle through people, you are bound to run into are some interesting individuals (or worse, Paris Hilton).

The great addicting appeal of Chat Roulette is the mystery of the whole process. You really do never know what you’re going to get, and while the vast majority are just bored looking guys staring into their computer (or doing something I really shouldn’t mention on a family site), there is that chance that you meet the interesting guy from Poland or the Norwegian hockey fan (who laughed at me for referring to “soccer” rather than football), or girl from Delaware who was taking a “mental health day” from school.

Perhaps counter intuitively, it can be easier to make a human connection with someone in an arena where even the lowest expectations of human decency are rarely met. The standards are just that much lower. In any case, if you have a strong stomach, it might be worthwhile to check it out, if only to see what a huge world it really is. Maybe you’ll strike up a conversation although if you’re a male, your chances are much, much worse.

Whether Chat Roulette is, as Jon Stewart claims, “The kind of thing everybody you know is going to do once, like sex in a turnpike Dunkin’ Donuts bathroom” or a full-fledged phenomenon remains to be seen. I’d bet on the former as an online version Gresham’s Law might be in force with the perverts driving out the “good users” and claiming an ever-larger share of the market. Still, there is something morbidly appealing about clicking a button and knowing that your image will be viewed somewhere on the other side of the world, and vice versa.

UPDATE: Rumors abound that the Merton fellow in the video at the top is actually Ben “Thrice Divorced” Folds. More on this as it develops.

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