My name is danah boyd and I'm a Principal Researcher at Microsoft Research, a Research Assistant Professor in Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University, and a Fellow at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society. Buzzwords in my world include: privacy, context, youth culture, social media, big data. I use this blog to express random thoughts about whatever I'm thinking.

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ChatRoulette by Sarita Yardi

Sarita Yardi has been doing a lot of thinking about ChatRoulette these days and I wanted to share a short essay she wrote to explain ChatRoulette to the uninitiated. I think that this is a fantastic introduction for those who aren’t familiar with the site. (And I’ll follow up with my own thoughts in the next post.)

BY SARITA YARDI

ChatRoulette is a new website that connects you face to face with Internet users around the world. When you go to the site and hit Play your webcam turns on and you’re connected to another person. Most times you’ll hit Next within a few seconds and be connected to someone else. Sometimes people stop to chat. Basically, instead of surfing the web, you’re surfing people.

ChatRoulette evokes patterns of behavior that are as old as the Internet. Our fascination with spontaneous and random forays into anonymous online interactions echo those of early text-based chatrooms and bulletin board systems in the 1990s and even earlier. Shock, boredom, play, and voyeurism characterized these early online environments as much as they do now. In ChatRoulette, there is no registration or login; staring into the bedroom of a complete stranger is fascinating and completely disconcerting.

ChatRoulette reminds me of when people said blogging was like making a private diary public. The idea of sitting in your bedroom showing your face to anyone in the world is simultaneously anonymous yet deeply revealing. This violates almost all social norms of the offline world. If someone walked up to you at a cocktail party, stared at you intensely, then simply walked away, you would feel confused and probably offended.

I was recently asked, “If a parent wanted to know if their kid should be on ChatRoulette, what would you tell them?” My experience on ChatRoulette has been about 10% sexual voyeurs, about 10% performance art (people dressed in cat costumes), and about 10% signs (show me your [x]!). There are a few older people, but the remaining majority is young people (high school and college kids) mostly just hanging out, some giggling, some looking vaguely bored. Like with anything their kids do online or offline, I would advise parents to reflect on what they consider to be socially appropriate material for their own child and to teach their kids how to weigh the costs and benefits—and risks and rewards—of any site that they decide to hang out on online.

There are a couple of quickly emerging norms on ChatRoulette:

  • Clicking Next is not only socially acceptable, but it is expected.
  • Flashing signs or stuffed animals—unless they’re particularly amusing or clever—is considered trolling. People want to be face to face with other people.
  • People wouldn’t want to see people they know.
  • It’s like window-shopping where real people are behind the window. You can look, but you can’t touch, and you can move on if you’re not interested.

There are a number of fascinating things about ChatRoulette. One is that it was written by a 17 year-old boy (Andrey Ternovskiy) who likes socializing with his friends and learned to code when he was 11. He also has an entrepreneurial spirit; he rewrote the code a few times for it to scale and he got his extended family to invest in the site so he could get more servers. In an interview with Russia Today, he says he built it so he and his friends could start doing things together online like watching movies or making things. In most contexts, we would love to hear stories of kids making cool stuff online.

Another spin is that video chat could enable kids to be more in control of their own safety than text chat. If most teens are in fact looking to chat with other teens, it is much easier for them to screen out older adults and anyone who’s doing explicitly sexual things. Imagine if we’d started with video chat 20 years ago and now, all of a sudden, we had this new “text-based chat”. We would be far more concerned because it’s so easy to deceive with text. What’s interesting is that the pervasive fears that arise with anonymous and ephemeral online interactions are actually mitigated in ChatRoulette. It’s actually *harder* to lie—it’s more difficult to lie about your age, gender, or physical features when the camera is focused directly on you.

With that said, it’s like an online Lord of the Flies, and it probably won’t last the way it is currently. There are too many unacceptable cultural and moral boundaries that are crossed—like random and unpredictable exposure to nakedness—for it to persist in its present state. This brings up interesting questions of governance. Wikipedia’s governance structure didn’t emerge in a day, nor did those of Usenet or IRC chatrooms. If ChatRoulette is more than a fad—and I suspect it is—one direction it might take is to grow and split out into categories where communities can develop roles and social norms for self-governance, like on Craigslist.

I’m not convinced that ChatRoulette is truly anonymous. The plethora of screenshots of the most outrageous (read: NSFW) and amusing webcam matchups make it possible to reveal people’s identities using facial matching algorithms or IP addresses or visual search. That’s not a criticism of ChatRoulette or a call for policing the Internet. As my adviser says “In 20 years, no one will be eligible to be president.” We’re still searching for the right balance between protecting our own privacy and being able to live out our social lives online without feeling that the rest of the world is out to get us.

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