Trollers of the Internet, you have been looking for the next big thing. Facebook bores you. Twitter is too frenetic. You have been wanting something different — a way to connect with people online that will both stir your heart and turn your stomach, that will launch a thousand privacy debates and discussions over just “what our society is coming to.”
The good news is that this thing has arrived. The bad news is that you may have already missed the best of it.
We are talking about Chatroulette.com, a webcam-linking social network, based on the theory that profound human connection happens by the luck of the draw.
Log on, click “Play,” and you are immediately matched with another anonymous chatter from somewhere on the globe, watching them as they watch you.
Intrigued? Strike up a conversation. Not? Click “Next,” and connect with someone else.
The experience is either an unbridled realisation of the Internet’s awesome randomness, or a compilation tape of its greatest hits: Omegle meets Hot or Not meets Match.com, plus a liberal dose of shame.
After all, if someone on an online dating site finds your profile picture unattractive, at least you don’t have to witness them ignore it. On Chatroulette, visitors can watch as their chat partners appraise, then dismiss them with a cool, clinical “Next.”
Let’s make a visit.
ME: What’s your right arm doing?
STRANGER: Got a bone in my hand.
ME: A chicken bone? A human femur?
Then my chat partner, a doughy 40-something, lowers his outstretched arm, which had been out of his webcam’s range, to reveal a giant knobby thing that looks like it belongs in a museum.
Is he an archaeologist? A witch doctor? Why is he holding it? There’s no opportunity to ask any of these questions, because the man disconnects soon after, presumably in search of a Jurassic Park fan.
The aspiring paleontologist is comparatively tame. Other site frequenters describe the Rouletter who wears the head of a horse costume and the Hanging Man, who has rigged his webcam so it appears to depict a dead body, swaying from the ceiling. The effect, needless to say, is horrifying.
A four-hour initial visit to the site yields a singalong in Spain and a conversation about prescription drugs with a Saudi Arabian pharmacist. After this global tour, a college student, chatting from his dorm room a few blocks away.
It’s no wonder blogs have anointed it “the most addicting site ever” and “the only thing worth doing on the Internet.” Chatroulette deliberately shuns the usual social-network safeguards: You do not need to be someone’s “friend” to see the person’s picture; you do not have to be “following” each other to exchange private messages; you do not need to be a genius to see why this could be every parent's worst nightmare.
“Are you writing about all the masturbating guys on here?” one chatting high school student asks when she learns I’m a journalist. “GROSS.”
The origins of the site, founded in November, were a mystery until recently. The servers traced back to an anonymous host in Europe, and speculations abounded. Was it a social experiment? A trap for paedophiles?
A few days ago, the much more benign answer was revealed: The founder was Andrey Ternovskiy, 17, of Moscow, who told the New York Times in an e-mail that he’d originally created the site for his friends, and while he runs a few modest ads on the site, he never expected it to get so huge.
Visitors to the site have skyrocketed from a few thousand in its early weeks to about 20,000 at any given time. It’s not hard to imagine the marketers who would want to harness that traffic.
It’s equally easy to imagine what they would want changed in order to invest. No X-rated material. And parental permission, please, to protect minors from nudity and terribly real-looking suicide tableaux, which can pop up when you least expect them:
STRANGER: How’s it hangin?
ME: omg I’ve been looking for you!
On my second visit to Chatroulette, I encounter the Hanging Man, at least one of them. This one, a 20-year-old Englishman named Damon, says he inherited the meme (cultural gene) from a friend. “It shocked me at first,” he writes. Now, “the reactions are fairly funny. I normally get a worried look, then I follow it with ‘How’s it hanging?’ and I get a laugh.”
I managed to track down the chatter in the horse costume by phone.
“To tell you the truth, I haven’t been on since Christmas,” says Aaron Perrin, a college student from England. He’d enjoyed the magical stranger connections but stopped visiting when he went home for winter break. He doesn’t anticipate coming back. “The people I know who still go on say it’s changed considerably,” he says. “It’s much more explicit now,” and “more crowded, too.”
Meeting strangers online might feel subversive and screwball, but the ultimate lesson is pure Sesame Street. Under the spandex and fetish gear, we’re all pretty much the same, and all pretty banal. How many times in a two-hour span do you want to tell someone where you’re from and what time it is there? What exactly are you hoping to find?
The Horse Man is over it, the original Hanging Man has passed the torch. Still, thousands of others will likely find amusement for a while, or until something new comes along, clicking “Next,” again and again.
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