I have been aware of Chatroulette for a few weeks now since my teenage son discovered it from friends, and became temporarily addicted.
The premise is remarkably simple, and relies on most modern computers having a webcam attached. You simply visit the very basic website (apparently built by Andrey Ternovskiy a Russian teenager) and start browsing. A live image of you will appear on the screen and below will be a random stranger who is currently on the site. Alongside is a text box for real-time chat, or you can use a microphone to speak to your ‘new friend’.
Needless to say the anonymous nature of the system attracts all kind of weird and wonderful characters, with a preponderance for men who like to surf (the web) naked. Some like to shock, with one notorious Chat Rouletter appearing to have hung himself in the corner of his bedroom. In these cases the single button that drives the system comes into play. It has the word ‘next’ on it. You press to get away from you current ‘partner’, but without knowing who will be next in line.
Not surprisingly the service seems to appeal to a large number of American teenage boys in search of females. Not surprisingly women are in a minority, and so in great demand.
However, according to my son it is possible to meet interesting and intelligent people from across the world. I was surprised by how often he came across people logged in from China. Perhaps the authorities are not aware of the system, so have yet to block access. Even Webwasher used at my workplace has yet to put a block on the site.
Newsnight attempted to justify the story on the basis that it was just the latest evidence in how Social Media activities such as Facebook and Twitter are breaking down social barriers and conventional restrictions on behaviour. However, I have my doubts, and wonder if just provided Jeremy Paxman the opportunity to say ‘masturbation’ live on air.
Addition 11 March 2010:
This weeks net@night with Amber and Leo spends quite a bit of time talking about the Chat Roulette phenomenon. In particular they talk about the shame of being ‘nexted’, when no one wants to talk to you online, and clicks the next button on the screen. They also referred to a video by Casey Neistat, a New York based artist and filmmaker. He has created an entertaining short film that explores the intricacies of Chat Roulette.