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.
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