By Olivia Scheck
Last week, while vacationing in San Francisco, I was introduced to a new and thoroughly modern form of evening entertainment. Instead of buying tickets to a concert, “getting sloshed” or simply enjoying each other's company, my hosts and I gathered around a computer to video chat with strangers.
Using a website called Chatroulette, we connected instantly to female college students in Korea, teenage boys in Brazil and one gentleman dressed as a horse. For the first few minutes of our exchange, the equine man danced before his webcam. Afterwards, he took off his mask, and we had a surprisingly intimate discussion about his life in a quiet Massachusetts town where he wished he had more friends.
Websites connecting strangers for aimless chatter are nearly as old as the internet itself. AOL chat rooms, which still provide a meeting place for groups to chat about American Idol and True Love After 40, reached their height of popularity in the late 90's. More recently, a teenage web programmer developed a website called Omegle to connect strangers in one-on-one interactions. Unlike traditional chat rooms, Omegle pairs users randomly and gives them no information about the people with whom they are chatting. (Instead of usernames, participants appear as “you” and “me.”) Either party can disconnect and begin chatting with someone new at any time.
Chatroulette, which employs the same format plus live audio and video, is the natural follow-up to Omegle, however the user experience is considerably more bizarre. With each connection, you are transported to someone's living room, bedroom or office cubicle. Unlike traditional text chat, the video feature provides much of the information (e.g. physical appearance, voice and mannerisms) that you use to read people in daily life. And the tendency towards prevarication that has historically marred internet meeting places is mitigated. You can't claim to be a 14-year-old girl if you're a middle-aged man, but you can still deny being middle aged.
In other words, Chatroulette is eerily similar to the real world.
If you're an optimist, you might predict that this increased likeness to reality would bring with it greater adherence to real-world etiquette (as compared to traditional text chat rooms). This does not seem to be the case. In a one-hour stint on Chatroulette, you'll see more sexual exhibitionists than have graced the New York City subway system throughout history, and don't be surprised if your chatting partner encourages you to disrobe.
While I am dismayed that this opportunity for cultural learning has been, so far, squandered on performance masturbation, I suppose I shouldn't be surprised. The perception of anonymity provided by computer-mediated interactions has resulted in many more disturbing cases of disinhibition. Consider the 2006 suicide of 13-year-old Megan Meier, who was allegedly bullied on MySpace by a classmate and the classmate's mother. Emotional abuse through digital media has become so widespread that the Advertising Council recently launched a public service campaign against “digital violence.”
Still, computer-mediated interaction may also have positive effects on behavior. Communicating in a non-physical, anonymous space could potentially lead to more open, even therapeutic, exchanges. Perhaps this is why a person who is introverted in his physical life chooses to don a horse costume and dance for strangers on the internet.
One hopes that in the future sites like Chatroulette can preserve the freeing effects of a social world without consequences while limiting the unfortunate behavior that can accompany it. In the mean time, Chatroulette is a fascinating social project, though it is not one for the faint of heart.