March 25 2010

Chatroulette: What's it good for?

Even the most casual visitor to the blogosphere will by now have read about Chatroulette, the website which indiscriminately matches strangers with each other and allows them to conduct webcam-assisted conversations. Disconcertingly for anyone writing about Chatroulette, there is no consensus on its relationship with capitalisation and spacing (Chat Roulette? ChatRoulette? Chatroulette? I’ve gone with the latter (obviously)). Created and run by Andrey Ternovskiy, a 17-year-old Russian student from Moscow, the site was estimated to have had 30 million unique users worldwide in February.

Most of the media coverage of Chatroulette – and there has been a lot of media coverage – seems to have focused on what one blogger calls “the masturbatory aspect of Internet expressiveness”. And, sure enough, a cursory visit to the site can be an unsettling experience for those among us whose idea of entertainment is anything other than watching the graphic onanism of a faceless 19-year-old from Wisconsin.

Blog talk

But others have been using the site more creatively. A number of Chatroulette-based games have become popular – while Merton the improv pianist has become, in his own slightly arrogant words, “a cultural phenomenon”. Meanwhile the imaginatively-named Cat Man has used augmented reality to good effect (as one chat partner says, “IT’S VERY NICE”), and one mischievous user has been taking her partner’s video stream, mirroring it back to them and then recording their reaction. Head bopping is the most common response, apparently. Make of that what you will.

The word “random” is bandied around these days with a regularity that if not alarming is certainly irritating, but Chatroulette is a rare worthy recipient of the adjective. And this randomness is the site’s greatest asset and its greatest flaw. The ease with which users can switch from partner to partner and instantly connect to people on the other side of the world is what makes the site appealing. But it also makes it unsafe for children and faintly pointless for adults.

As Larry Magid has pointed out, Chatroulette – or the idea behind it – has great educational potential. Children can speak to people in Afghanistan about their experiences of the War on Terror – or to women in Iran about life there. Israelis can speak to Palestinians. Creatives experimenting with QR codes or iPad software can learn from people in Japan or the US about these technologies. All these things were possible on the web already, of course, but the introduction of a video element brings people closer together – and this is a powerful thing. The draconian authorities in China have yet to ban Chatroulette, so it is providing a rare opportunity for the inhabitants of the world’s most populous nation to speak openly with Westerners directly and in confidence from the comfort of their homes. But as long as the user has no control over their chat partner, such edifying Chatroulette encounters are the exception rather than the rule.

Roulette wheel

And this leads to the other significant characteristic of Chatroulette conversation: anonymity. If randomness is one pillar of the site, anonymity is the other. There are no logins, no registration process, no name display – and people love it. Nick Bilton believed the success of the site “signals a nascent desire for anonymity online”. I’m not sure Bilton is right to describe this desire for anonymity as nascent – the anonymity provided by online chat rooms has been attracting many users since their 1990s heyday. In this sense, Chatroulette is not the future of the internet, but its past.

Either way, as with its randomness, Chatroulette’s anonymity is a blessing and a curse. The site is unsafe for children and its anonymity means that users tend to behave in ways they might otherwise not – hence the unsavoury scenes from Wisconsin. As Sarita Yardi, a doctoral candidate at the Georgia Institute of Technology who studies the role of technology in teenagers’ lives, puts it, “Right now it’s kind of like an online Lord of the Flies.”

Magid suggests the introduction of channels so users can filter chat partners by things like subject matter, language and region. If these changes were implemented, it would no longer be Chatroulette, of course. If each participant in a game of Russian roulette knew which chamber contained the bullet, and chose whether to load that one or not, it would slightly defy the point. And in some ways, allowing users control over their partners would defy the point of Chatroulette. But the idea and the technology could certainly be used for educational purposes. With logins, channels, moderation and supervision, a video chat site could be a great resource to afford people an insight into the lives of others whom they would never encounter otherwise.

Some safeguards have already been put in place by Chatroulette spin-offs like Chatroulette Map, which ties users to their location. RandomDorm is Chatroulette for US college students, and requires them to log in using a verified college email address. But neither harnesses the educational potential of the medium. Until a site can get the security right and the user numbers up, Chatroulette and its various spin-offs will be like so many things on the web: nothing more than a fun way of wasting time. In the words of Cat Man’s chat buddy, it’s very nice – but that’s about it.

Courtesy of blogefl on

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