July 29, 2010 News » Cover Story

Come as you are 

Chatroulette takes random-access exhibitionism to the next level

It's Saturday night and I'm watching a bunch of men masturbate. I've never met any of them before, and I'll never see any of them again. At least, that's what I'm hoping.

What's reassuring — but also maybe a little unsettling — is that, at this same moment, a ridiculous number of people are doing exactly the same thing: Going to chatroulette.com, clicking yes to their webcams being activated, and pressing a button to be connected face-to-face with the first in a series of complete strangers. According to a recent New Yorker article, chatroulette.com is racking up a daily average of more than 1 million discrete users.

Or, in many cases, less-than-discreet users.

Some online commentators are already sounding Chatroulette's death knell. (It has been around since last November, after all.) The claim is that the excessive level of exhibitionism is quickly wearing out its welcome. Constantly pressing the Next button — which either party can do at any point — can get pretty Pavlovian after a while.

But rumors of the service's demise may be greatly exaggerated. Especially since the company made an announcement earlier this month that could be a game-changer for both advocates and detractors.

Chatroulette is now introducing a localized spinoff called Localroulette, which will use your Internet Protocol [IP] address to figure out where you are, and to connect you with other users in your geographic area. Rather than strangers from around the world, you can now be hooked up with someone who might be living right down the street. (To find out how that could impact public safety concerns here in Colorado Springs, see "Stranger dangers," below.)

And if Localroulette isn't enough product diversification for you, the company has also rolled out Channelroulette, which allows users to choose between a selection of topic-specific channels, helping protect the prudent from the prurient. At least, that's the idea. In practice, early figures show the majority of users opting for the "sex channel."

So maybe it's not surprising that Apple recently pulled a new iPhone 4 Chatroulette application from its app store. After all, Steve Jobs and his crew at one point turned down graphic novel adaptations of Oscar Wilde and James Joyce on the grounds of objectionable content. By those standards, Chatroulette definitely has its objectionable moments.

Close encounters

All of which brings us back to Saturday night. Predictably, the genitalia — all male — are not in short supply. I am accompanied by my fellow editor Jill Thomas, who has agreed to take over for the second hour in hopes of chronicling a different experience. (See "Why I'll never go on Chatroulette again.")

We've also brought along a "special guest" to star in the final portion of our experiment. We'll get to him shortly.

In hopes of prolonging my encounters, I make sure to identify myself as a journalist. This ends up not helping much with the exhibitionists. Except for one.

While I've vowed never be the first to hit Next (regardless of camera angle), this sustained view of a stranger's nether regions is creepier than I expected.

I repeat the message: "Can I interview you for our paper?" Still no response. What's wrong with this guy?

Finally, I type in a follow-up: "Can you type with one hand?"

End of interview.

Happily, we find people who are fully clothed and much more willing to chat. They include (1) a college sophomore who tells me a guy spent three hours trying to convince her to show her "girl bits," (2) an Austin, Texas teenager who earnestly types his answers while listening to the Red Hot Chili Peppers on headphones, and (3) a kid who looks like a more muscular version of Spike Lee telling us about his steroid use.

But my favorite conversation is with a respectable-looking gentleman from New Hampshire, who looks like your bespectacled 10th-grade science teacher but with a full head of hair and no obvious facial tics.

"Where are all the older women on here?" he wonders. "Like in their 50s?"

He also complains about how rude most young people on Chatroulette are, but notes that he has encountered a few women from Sweden who were all very nice. "I surely don't want to see all these penises," he adds.

"How many penises were there before you met the Swedes?"


I tell him this is for a newspaper in Colorado Springs, home to Ted Haggard. "Who's Ted Haggard," he asks. When I explain about New Life, he mentions that he and his wife are going to Durham Evangelical Church in the morning.

I ask what his wife thinks of him being on Chatroulette.

"She don't know," he responds. "It's not an affair. Just chat. Never going to meet them. It's a good pastime.

"Are you really a reporter?"

Social discourse

"Chatroulette is filling a gap in social media," says Ryan Calo, who runs the Center for Internet and Society's Consumer Privacy Project at Stanford Law School. "We have video sharing on the Internet and we have random interactions. But we didn't have both in real time."

Calo tells me that Chatroulette combines some of the best and worst aspects of the Internet. Among the former he includes the ability to create "ad hoc communities" and to take users out of their "comfort zone." The downside, he says, is "access to material and people that are disturbing. There may be privacy concerns as well. Chatroulette is not likely to be immune to hackers."

Although he cautions that he's not an expert, Calo feels Chatroulette's danger to children online is frequently overstated.

"I understand that most abuse is perpetrated by people children already know," he says. "Moreover, it is uncommon for a child to meet up with a stranger. But the introduction of Localroulette does add a layer of concern, in my view. Parents should be aware of Chatroulette, especially now that it has gone local. Not panicked, but simply aware."

As you've probably guessed, I did not run into Calo on Chatroulette. In fact, he doesn't find going on there to be particularly interesting, apart from its connection to his profession.

"But, in fairness, I was not on the service long," he says. "I have read many, many accounts of wonderful and surprising interactions. I find the secondary material — blogs, etc. — around Chatroulette at least as interesting as the website itself. People love to capture awkward moments on Chatroulette almost as though they were a form of art."

Artistically inclined regulars include a guy who improvises piano odes to whomever comes online, and another who draws their caricatures.

And then there are the two Italian conceptual artists who've taken the performative aspect of Chatroulette about as far it can go. Eva and Franco Mattes (see "Dead Man chatting.") confronted users with the live image of a man suspended by a rope in a trashed living room, an all-too-convincing approximation of someone who's just hanged himself. The couple then edited the best and worst reactions into a 10-minute video art piece titled "No Fun." (Or as Iggy Pop once sang, "No fun to hang around.")

History lessens

Invented nine months ago by a 17-year-old Russian, Chatroulette engages both voyeuristic and exhibitionist tendencies that are not without precedent in the pre-Internet age.

In the early '70s, for instance, 10 million viewers tuned in to watch An American Family, a weekly PBS series that chronicled the unraveling of the Louds, a typically atypical California family that self-destructs in more or less real time. Albert Brooks later parodied the Louds in his 1979 film, Real Life.

The '80s introduced us to Fox's Cops, which probably requires no explanation. That decade also begat MTV, which in turn begat The Real World franchise, in which random telegenic 20-somethings are thrown together into one household so they can behave outrageously while we watch. Now in its 24th season, the franchise annually reinvents itself with a fresh batch of human and geographic fodder.

Network television quickly responded with series about top models, bad celebrity dancers, people eating larvae, and Donald Trump.

The Internet's major innovation was to cut out the media middleman. Self-surveillance has since exploded, from commonplace YouTube videos to bizarre lifecasting sites in which people use "wearable technology" to broadcast their lives 24-7.

All of which makes Chatroulette seem comparatively normal. Well, almost.

Puppet regime

Show me your genitals

Your genitals

Show me your genitalia

These words are being typed by a young woman in a Jamaican-style red, green and black tam who looks like she might be stoned.

There are two things that strike us as unusual about this.

One is that the solicitor is female.

The other is that she's talking to a puppet.

In keeping with the scientific method, we realized early on the necessity of repeating our experiment with male, female and non-human life forms. Since my colleague's daughter recently made a weird sock puppet, complete with cape and twirled mustache, it seemed like the ideal protagonist for the post-midnight portion of the session. (We chose late Saturday night, by the way, in order to maximize encounters with lonely and bored people.)

The puppet turns out to be a great success, earning uninterrupted screen time with all types of chat-mates — including a number of undressed men, which was, again, a little unsettling. Most everyone waited at least a minute before pressing Next. By session's end, our puppet has interacted with more people in one hour than most puppets do in a lifetime.

Comfortably numb

OK then, apart from a lesson on the universal popularity of sock puppets, what have we learned?

I'm tempted to say: Nothing. After all, moral crusaders have been railing against the media for perpetrating sex and violence since the Kefauver comic book hearings in the 1950s. The same accusations have been leveled at films, television, music videos and, of course, video games.

In a paper titled "Sex and Violence Makes Me Yawn," Missouri School of Journalism professor Paul Bolls maintains that heavy exposure to depictions of sex and violence eventually leads to decreased arousal and a less positive emotional outlook. (He bases that conclusion on experiments involving the measurement of 60 participants' skin conductance and facial muscle activity. It may be worth noting that no puppets were included in the experiment.)

A rapid succession of people exposing themselves on your computer screen does tend to lose its shock value pretty quickly. Think of it as the static between stations on your car radio.

So is Chatroulette the latest installment in a mass media campaign to desensitize an easily corrupted populace?

Or is it some postmodern version of Walt Disney's "It's a Small World" that will propagate ad hoc communities in which we evolve from exhibitionist perversions to idealistic conversations about peace, love and understanding?

Or is it just a fun way to pass the time while hanging around at home on a Saturday night?

If pressed for an answer, I'd have to say none of the above. But some million people a day apparently feel otherwise. Although most of them are real dicks.


Stranger dangers: Chatroulette goes local

Concerns and controversies around the Chatroulette phenomenon could end up taking on a new urgency with the nine-month-old company's introduction of Localroulette.

— Bill Forman

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