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Hate ChatRoulette? Then You Hate The Internet

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Every once in a while, a service or feature comes along that crystallizes everything people love and hate about the Internet. ChatRoulette is definitely one of those services. Plenty has been written already about the new social tool, which is a little like the Internet video version of speed dating. It was created by a 17-year-old Russian student as a lark and has exploded in popularity with as many as 50,000 simultaneous users, attracting interest from some (including Union Square Ventures investor Fred Wilson, who offered to fly the founder to New York for an interview and suggested he might invest) and revulsion from others.

The revulsion comes because of the somewhat prolific use of ChatRoulette by exhibitionists and other, er… excessively outgoing users, an experience that writer Ivor Tossell described eloquently in a recent article entitled “Click. Naked Guy. Click. Naked Guy. Click. Naked Guy.” Suffice it to say that young children — or even easily offended adults — shouldn’t be left to wander around ChatRoulette unsupervised. Tyler Coates of The Awl came up with a list of the top 25 things people said to him on ChatRoulette, which should give you some idea of what to expect.

Based on a cursory glance through this kind of material, or some of the bizarre and hilarious screenshots that have sprung up around the web, it would be easy to dismiss the service as a kind of pornographic and/or mentally deficient version of StumbleUpon (which probably should have thought of it before Andrey Ternovsky did, to be honest). But services like ChatRoulette are like a Petri dish for the social web — what they show us is frequently unappetizing, and even unhealthy, but can also give us a glimpse of what the future (or at least one version of it) might look like. In a recent post about ChatRoulette, sociologist and Internet researcher danah boyd said:

I find it difficult to respond to the fears because I find it endearing. ChatRoulette reminds me a lot of the quirkiness of the Internet that I grew up with. Like when I was a teen trolling through chatrooms, ChatRoulette is filled with all sorts of weird people.

She adds that one of the things she likes most about the service is its randomness — you never know what you are going to find when you click the “Next” button. Boyd’s fellow researcher Sarita Yardi also wrote about the service in a guest post on boyd’s blog, saying:

ChatRoulette reminds me of when people said blogging was like making a private diary public. The idea of sitting in your bedroom showing your face to anyone in the world is simultaneously anonymous yet deeply revealing. This violates almost all social norms of the offline world.

There have been other services much like ChatRoulette. One of the first things it reminded me of when I saw it was an early Internet network called CU-SeeMe, which allowed anyone with a web-cam to connect to and see anyone else. Of course, in the mid-1990s when CU-SeeMe became available, hardly anyone had a web-cam, so mostly what you got was bored university students in their IT labs. Not long afterward, however, we got the JenniCam — an always-on webcam that Jennifer Ringley set up in her dorm room that displayed whatever she was doing, from homework and sleeping to sex.

The main difference between then and now isn’t that anything radical has changed about the Internet or human nature, but a difference of scale. Instead of weak, dial-up connections to the web, broadband penetration is widespread (and likely to grow) and speeds are increasing. Streaming video is no longer something that is restricted to university students with their T1 lines. And webcams are ubiquitous as well, giving every teenager and bored retiree the equipment to jump on ChatRoulette or any other service. You think ChatRoulette is bad now? Wait until streaming video from cell phones and handhelds through services like Qik becomes commonplace.

Former SixApart executive Anil Dash said recently that ChatRoulette made him think about the power of the audience and of shared experience (however tawdry that experience might be). New York magazine also had a recent piece about how ChatRoulette sums up a lot of what is both good and bad about human behavior, both on the Internet and in the real world. As usual, the Internet finds ways of holding up a mirror so that we can see ourselves as we really are, warts and all. That mirror is getting faster, better quality, becoming more widely distributed, and yes — now includes video.

Related content from GigaOm Pro: Is Facebook Video Chat The Future of Social Media?

Post photo courtesy of ChatRoulette Screenshots, thumbnail courtesy of Buzzfeed

26 Responses to “Hate ChatRoulette? Then You Hate The Internet”

  1. crazy

    Well, I have to say chat roulette and all the other sites that are like it is a new way to socially interact… maybe it was time we could go through and see how everybody else lives… it probably should have been called for as much of that that u see… but i happened to ask some students what was a good lap top to buy…just randomly they appeared … they said something from Apple…expensive but effective…maybe that is what the world needs…something…in-expensive and effective…take their minds off all their worries… and that’s all i have to say…

  2. Chatroulette has tremendous social and value potential for all, but Chatroulette is full of pervs. Just noticed this site that brings together musicians to “JAM” with others, randomly, with the same concept. Let’s the music be the focus instead of nudity.

  3. I do hate ChatRoulette for certain pretty much good reasons. I have tried getting on it twice and this is what happened;
    1st, and for no apparent reason, some (lifeless) people called me a jew, considering that i by no means look like one-that’s if there’s something identifiable about the way how do jews look like.
    2nd, because the lights in my room are a bit dim, they were racist to me because i looked a bit darker than what i actually am.
    3rd, without knowing what kind of people i am and without even knowing what my name is, people on there call any DRESSED male as a faggot and swear at him assuming that he is looking for nude girls to show him their bodies.
    Finally, Chatroulette is a good website for “lifeless” people and has lost its fun which it used to possess. If you want to socialize, go meet some of your friends or make new friends face to face.

  4. I think it was only a matter of time before an internet site like this came into fruition. It definitely has a unique draw for many people, as seen in this video from I’m curious to see if it continues to grow in popularity and morphs or just peaks and falls of the face of the earth.

  5. Geoff Turner

    Oh just what the world was looking for: a site that captures the best and worst of the internet. I’ve now heard that said about YouTube, Facebook, Ebay…I could go on, but there will be something new for the list in about five minutes, so why bother?
    As for Chatroulette being a mirror, maybe for you brother, but certainly not for me. There’s nothing more essentially “real” about how people behave on Chatroullette. Like Second Life or the chat rooms of yore, it’s a forum where people can act very unlike themselves and do things that their healthy sense of shame and dignity prevents them from doing under any other circumstance.
    Yet another internet sinkhole for civility.

  6. Matt

    Great post. Thnx

    I agree..weird…off…wrong..right. All of the preceding.

    The real time social web is evolution on steroids for capabilities and for our ability to find value in them.

    Not only is the web changing but we are changing with it.

    No..CR is not the wave of future. But is shows that the intersection of the reaches of human behavior with the power of cloud based, device independent, global, video and anonymous drive something new.

    I’m not personally interested in the service except what it portends. And I think it has unlocked something powerful that will explode into the mainstream in another form.

    I write about the social web @

  7. “Suffice it to say that young children — or even easily offended adults — shouldn’t be left to wander around ChatRoulette unsupervised.”

    Are you kidding me? Young children should not be anywhere near ChatRoulette – supervised or unsupervised.