ChatRoulette, from my perspective

I’ve been following ChatRoulette for a while now but haven’t been comfortable talking about it publicly. For one, it’s a hugely controversial site, one that is prompting yet-another moral panic about youth engagement online. And I hate having the role of respondent to public uproar. (I know I know…) More importantly though, I find it difficult to respond to the fears because I find it endearing. ChatRoulette reminds me a lot of the quirkiness of the Internet that I grew up with. Like when I was a teen trolling through chatrooms, ChatRoulette is filled with all sorts of weird people. And most users ignore most other users until they find someone they find interesting or compelling. While the site was designed by a teen, minors do not dominate there (although there are plenty of young adults there). And, not surprisingly, teens on the site have ZERO interest in talking to older folks – even old folks like me. It’s the strangest pairing dynamic… You can click Next and they can click Next until something gels. And even though I might want to talk to teens on the site, they have no desire to talk to me. Imagine if I was a sketchy guy. Right: no interest. Likewise, the people who most want to talk to me – a young woman – are the people that I don’t want to talk to. So on and on and on we go clicking next until there’s a possible spark. It’s a game played by flaneurs walking the digital streets.

What I like most about the site is the fact that there’s only so much you can hide. This isn’t a place where police officers can pretend to be teen girls. This isn’t a place where you feel forced to stick around; you can move on and no one will know the difference. If someone doesn’t strike your fancy, move on. And on. And on.

I love the way that it mixes things up. For most users of all ages – but especially teens – the Internet today is about socializing with people you already know. But I used to love the randomness of the Internet. I can’t tell you how formative it was for me to grow up talking to all sorts of random people online. So I feel pretty depressed every time I watch people flip out about the dangers of talking to strangers. Strangers helped me become who I was. Strangers taught me about a different world than what I knew in my small town. Strangers allowed me to see from a different perspective. Strangers introduced me to academia, gender theory, Ivy League colleges, the politics of war, etc. So I hate how we vilify all strangers as inherently bad. Did I meet some sketchballs on the Internet when I was a teen? DEFINITELY. They were weird; I moved on. And it used to be a lot harder to move on when everything was attached to an email that was paid for. So I actually think that the ChatRoulette version allows you to move on with greater ease, less guilt, and far more comfortably. Ironically – given the recent media coverage – it feels a lot safer than any site that I’ve seen that’s attached to a name or profile with connections to people or identifying information. Can youth get themselves into trouble here? Sure… like in most public places. And there are definitely youth who are playing with fire. But, once again, why go after the technology when the underlying issues should be the ones we address? Le sigh.

Anyhow, I was hemming and hawing about what to say about this and I’m still not sure what to say because, truthfully, I like the reminder of ye-olde-Internet culture. I like the fact that there are still a small percentage of folks out there looking for some amusement because they’re bored and they want to connect with randomness, folks who recognize the joy of meeting strangers in a safer space than most physical spaces where that’s possible. I realize that this creates the potential for seeing some pretty gross and/or problematic things and I certainly don’t want to dismiss that, but I’m pretty certain that teens are responding the same way that I’m responding – by clicking Next. Is that ideal? Probably not. And I’d certainly love a filter – not just for teens but for my own eyes. (Then again, I’d also like a spam filter too… Especially here on my blog. Cuz really, who of you who are reading this want to get porn ads here either?) I’m not sure that immature folks of any age (or the easily grossed out) should be on this site. But I do hope that we can create a space where teens and young adults and the rest of us can actually interact with randomness again. There’s a cost to our social isolation and I fear that we’re going to be paying it for generations to come.

So I’m still not sure what to say except that I feel this weighted sense of Le Sigh. The same mix of depression and exhaustion I felt this morning when I was playing peek-a-boo with a smily child in an airport and her parents whisked her away, glaring at me as though I was the devil incarnate. I realize that many parents think that they’re doing good by their kids when they choose to limit their exposure to the randomness of the world, but it just makes me deeply deeply sad. And so I simultaneously am amused by ChatRoulette and depressed because I realize that so many folks would prefer to keep themselves and their teens/college-aged-kids sheltered rather than giving them a way of thinking about systems like this and teaching them to walk away when things get weird. And this deserves a Le Sigh Royale.

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57 thoughts on “ChatRoulette, from my perspective

  1. Pingback: apophenia » Blog Archive » ChatRoulette by Sarita Yardi

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  3. Brian B

    Indeed. I hate those moral panics, and I appreciate your illuminating them and the social forces behind them.

    After reading this I’m pondering getting a webcam so I can check ChatRoulette out; sounds interesting.

    See you at SXSWi!

  4. Suzanne

    “What I like most about the site is the fact that there’s only so much you can hide.”

    Good point, should quell some concerns. What’s up with the gender disparity, 20:1 (well that’s what I’ve read)?

    I started having random encounters with weirdness when I moved out of my parents house at 18 to California. From New Jersey. Before that they were more calculated, like when we’d go to NYC for a special occasion. I remember seeing a man with no legs on a scooter and being baffled and yeah a little scared. Didn’t talk about it; wasn’t traumatized. Then there was the time, my mother took my sister and I to see HAIR, when I was 13ish, again not randomness, but risky, exposure for 1973. The only discussion was before the curtain opened when she said “Now there’s some nudity in this play girls.”

    I’m not a parent (by choice) and so I can’t relate to the challenges, but I’d critique the whole of mainstream American culture as having become heavily drugged by consumerism and thus unable to value much else.

    It is saddening.

  5. Amelia

    I can’t decide what ChatRoulette means either. It seems so much about exhibitionism (hence the free-range flashing), rather than voyeurism or equal-visual exchange, which is really contradictory, since it facilitates really unguarded interactions in otherwise intimate spaces. That said, in the few times I’ve poked around with it, I was pretty amazed at the brevity and intensity of the process- two seconds for a teenage boy to pass me by! It is like staring at strangers in public, but so detached.

  6. saa

    Ok Chatroulette is dangerous. In 10 random clicks I encountered 2 naked penises, a she-mail, a topless woman, and a couple having sex. Thank goodness I had my camera OFF.

    The thing is–yeah, you can avoid weirdness by clicking, BUT…once you see weirdness, you’ve seen it, and young people aren’t ready for shemales and penis flashing at their age. (that’s why there is an 18+ film limit for R and X materials.) You can’t ‘unsee’ this stuff.

    Mostly, I found it shocking and surprising. More young males topless–than others on my random clicks.

  7. Carlos Q.

    I absolutely agree with you about the olde days of the internet. I’ll be 40 this year, and it’s astonishing how many people I’m friends with now, that I met randomly on the internet in the 1990’s.

    I still make friends on forums that interest me and still meet those people at events in the real world, but it doesn’t feel the same. One of my best friends I met in a random Slingo game at around 3am 12 years ago…and I still talk to her almost daily.

    I think it hit me when Geocities died out. That just killed me. All those memories of surfing the web in the dark on a 486 with a 14.4 modem came flooding back. It was the end of a cool, dingy, rough world that began for me on BBS’ in the 80’s.


  8. Jan Doggen

    “Then again, I’d also like a spam filter too… Especially here on my blog.”
    I see you’re using WordPress.
    The Akismet plugin does a pretty good job, and you can add reCaptcha which is better than “What is the name of this blog” 😉

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  13. dr. dave

    My secret to getting some chat time with people who would ordinarily “next” you after a half second?

    Instead of showing your face…? Puppets.

    People react with joy – almost everyone, even really tattooed dudes and gangsta -lookin’ guys. (And the stoners… oh my. It makes their evening!)

    And no I’m not a perv.

  14. Pingback: No Need To Fear ChatRoulette | The Moderate Voice

  15. Pat Costello

    When I was growing up I got it in my head that I wanted to play old time banjo and acoustic blues guitar. So I pulled a guitar out of a trash can and started wandering the streets of Philadelphia looking for people to teach me. I would skip school for days at a time and wander around on my own.

    Philadelphia was a rough town in the 1980’s and I got into a few scrapes here and there. I met a few bad people, but I met an awful lot of good people.

    It wasn’t easy for my folks. I will never forget the look on my dad’s face the night he followed me to one of my gig’s and realized that his sixteen year old son was playing in a bar with an IRA band from Belfast. As shocked as he was he didn’t drag me home. He simply told me to be careful because my mother worried and that I could call him any time I needed help.

    Nowadays when I tell my younger students about my adventures I don’t know what shocks them more, my free-range childhood or when I tell them I never did drugs or drank. After seeing what those things did to the musicians I was hanging around with I made a person decision to stay sober. In some ways being exposed to bad behavior made me realize the cost of my actions.

    So while chatroulette is a little on the pervy side, it really is no better or worse that what we are exposed to offline. Hiding kids from danger is not going to protect them. At some point we all have to learn how to calmly hit, “next” or walk away.

    I think I’ll have to start logging on once in a while with my guitar. Who knows? Maybe there is a kid out there looking to learn the blues.

  16. f f

    “BUT…once you see weirdness, you’ve seen it, and young people aren’t ready for shemales and penis flashing at their age”

    …because there’s nowhere else on the internet where children could possibly find those things.

    Suffice it to say, I’d seen plenty of both long before age 18 — such is the nature of growing up with internet access.

  17. Ben S

    I appreciate your desire for people to be exposed to the “Wackiness” and “randomness” of the world, However, there is nothing random about ChatRoulette. As the name implies it is roulette. But the risks are far greater. The site is not in fact random. It is a cacophony of lewd conduct and desperate men staring blankly at the screen hoping for some flesh shots. This site needs to implement some measures to filter this sort of behavior. Kids at the mall who are harmlessly meeting or simply watching people would never be exposed to this sort of overwhelming truly un-random encounters.

    Once again I argue that this sort of site is not really random.

  18. Bram Sinclair

    It doesdoes remind me of the early 1992 internet days but you could actually have chats back then. I’m lucky to get one word in most of the time.

    I’m not too old but I get called “dad” when im on it. It feels like you have to have some gimmick to get people to stop for a bit.

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  20. Igor

    It may seem odd coming from someone who’s website is full of naked photos that I take but Chatroulette is one thing I would keep as far away from my kids as possible.

    I am as open minded as can be and would probably be a terrible parent, forcing my kids to watch horror movies with me and such, but I cant really see how chat roulette is defensible for a teenager.

    You cannot go 5 clicks without seeing someone masturbating and I cant really see how a randomized social dynamic allowing people to converse with strangers justifies little kids seeing stuff like that.

  21. Greg

    “Ok Chatroulette is dangerous. In 10 random clicks I encountered 2 naked penises, a she-mail, a topless woman, and a couple having sex. Thank goodness I had my camera OFF.”

    10 random clicks? That must have taken about 7 seconds. You might consider spending a little more time with the site before forming such a definitive judgement. But even with the encounters you had, I’m not sure I see the ‘danger.’

    “The thing is–yeah, you can avoid weirdness by clicking, BUT…once you see weirdness, you’ve seen it, and young people aren’t ready for shemales and penis flashing at their age. (that’s why there is an 18+ film limit for R and X materials.) You can’t ‘unsee’ this stuff.”

    That’s actually NOT the reason that there are ratings on movies, which involves a storied history of a small handful of people who decided they wanted to control what people were exposed to (documented partially in the movie “This Movie Is Not Yet Rated”). It’s true you can’t ‘unsee’ some of things you might be exposed to on Chatroulette, but that’s the inescapable truth of confronting the bizarre world that exists right now. Why not grow up with it and become comfortable with it sooner rather than spend your life in shock and horror?

  22. Anas

    My experience with chatroulette was the following:
    Penis, penis, penis, face! Penis, note that says “show me your boobs,” penis, penis…

  23. A. Lamps

    “In 10 random clicks I encountered 2 naked penises, a she-mail, a topless woman, and a couple having sex. Thank goodness I had my camera OFF.”

    And yet you’re posting here…
    The penises were probably real; everything else was fake. The major flaw here is failing to ask how these kids discovered chatroulette in the first place.

    “This isn’t a place where police officers can pretend to be teen girls.”

    This is false. If I can do it, anyone can.

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  25. Florsie

    Sure, there’s lots of masturbating action and a few trolls who post gross images. But then again, its like when guys want to see your boobs: you’re either into it or not. Chatroulette is a game and you decide if you want to play or not. You can go on clicking F9 as long as you want. I guess this site was never meant for kids, though I did see one 11 year old boy wanting to see my boobs. However, its not my responsability if that kid’s parents haven’t taught his kids about how the internet works. On the other hand, I saw this sweet 14 year old boy playing Michelle on his guitar. I don’t mind all those underage dweebs and all the ‘bating action, there is some interesting stuff on chatroulette.

    OP, i think I saw you last night. I was stupid enough to click F9. But I promise that if I do see you again, I’ll stick around.

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  27. David Levin

    @ saa – 10 clicks? Most of what came up for me in the first 30 was just other people with their cameras turned off. Chalk it up to the random nature of the internet… but that’s what I love about chatroulette. It’s a taste of the open garden the early net felt like—which can both sketchy and beautiful. So’s life, though.

  28. Donal O' Mahony

    I am strangely disturbed and strangely fascinated by Chatroulette.

    Disturbed by the amount of male exhibitionism I encountered in ten minutes. Fascinated by the possibilities of clicking through in an engaged sort of way looking for ‘whats next’?

    I would not like my younger teenage children to use this site but I trust them to move on as I hope I have helped them understand some of the wilder side of the internet.

    I can think of developments in terms of the arts and or music. Could have a facinating international exhibition on an artistic theme…..

  29. Owen

    I just had my first session on ChatRoulette. I actually found it awkward if I stayed connected to somebody longer than a couple seconds… I was so used to getting Nexted (and Nexting others) that it was interesting when somebody actually stuck around for a while. I literally had no idea what to say.

    After a while I realized that I had to have a schtick. I had fun coming up with a way to make people laugh in a short amount of time. I stopped trying to figure out how to chat, and started looking for ways to get a smile out of a random stranger. Amateur cartoonists ought to be on this site in droves!

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  31. Saravanan

    Good Post with lot of interesting observations. Chatroulette! definitely reminds me of web 0.01 . Even a partial filter will be a good idea. I am not sure if this a temporary fad like pleaserobme but you have to definitely be amazed with steady stream of social websites with radical ideas like twitter or chatroulette.

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  33. Rob F

    Just sent a coworker a link to chatroulette and the first image he sees is another man’s junk.

    I hope this doesn’t turn into a “HR moment!”

  34. therapydoc

    First of all, I love that you don’t capitalize your name :).
    Second, this is just great, your take on systems and social networking, teaching kids that you can learn from people, you don’t have to be afraid, you need how to learn how to walk away. Awesome.

  35. Erika Dauber

    Chatroulette reminds me of AOL chatrooms when I was in high school. My friends and I would log in and try to find the weirdos. We thought it was hilarious. Even if the comments towards us were potentially harmful, we felt safe because we were doing it to amuse ourselves.

  36. Taylan

    Actually, peek-a-boo is welcome in airports or elsewhere if it’s a woman doing that. I can’t help but notice that it’s mostly the guys getting the parental glare. It’s like if you’re a male and you smile at a child, people think there is a good chance you might be a sex offender. Not directly related to the topic but I felt like adding this weird perspective to gender inequality.

  37. Dylan

    I’ve been fascinated by ChatRoulette since I first heard of it a few weeks ago. At first, I thought it was a website full of creepers and wankers, but over time I began to really enjoy it. In the 3-4 hours I’ve used the site, I’ve met some neat people. To name a few I talked to for >5 minutes:

    – a sophomore at SF State who grew up about a half hour away from me
    – a french journalist who told me about how all the french newspapers have covered chat roulette
    – a canadian criminology student who wants to work in a rehab clinic
    – a french girl who I ended up facebook friending after a fun conversation (we are still exchanging messages)
    – a very shy teenager from china who told me about the pressures of the chinese schooling system and her relationship woes in broken english
    – a high school senior from Georgia who applied to Brown and who says she’s going to send me an email for a tour

    If it weren’t for ChatRoulette, I wouldn’t have had these conversations. Are there other places online that I can talk to people from all over the world? Sure, but I don’t trust them. How do I know that the person I’m talking to isn’t a creepy, old, fat guy? On ChatRoulette, I trust people’s identities because of the video-chat component. (I’m aware that there are ways to fake webcam feeds, but it’s pretty obvious when that happens.)

    The more vulgar parts of ChatRoulette don’t affect me much because of the amount of time I spend on the Internet. When I was in high school, my friends thought it was *really* funny to send each other links of shock videos disguised as desired content (usually game cheats) to gross each other out. After seeing some truly gruesome stuff, I can handle a few penises.

    That said, I’d argue that the most shocking part of the website can be in the people you meet. One time, I talked to a very angry, young teenage boy who yelled at me for a good 5 minutes. I couldn’t press “next” because I wanted to understand why he was so angry. I never did figure it out, and after he ran out of insults he “nexted” me. I don’t care about the gross images, but that has stuck with me.

    One thing I find interesting about ChatRoulette is that the rate at which people “next” me is dependent upon my location and company. If I’m sitting at my desk, only 1/5 people stop to talk to me. If I’m in the library, 3/10 will try a conversation. Lying in bed, 2/5 will talk to me. If I’m on the website with my girlfriend, over half will talk to me. (And, since it’s the Internet, a third of those will ask if they can see her breasts.)

    On the front page of ChatRoulette, it says “Click ‘Play’ to start the game.” At first I attributed that copy to awkward translation, but now I recognize that there’s a lot of truth in it. Everyone has different motives for using the site. Some people want to hook up, some want to gross others out and some want to meet people. People come back if they have fun playing the game and get what they want out of the site.

    It will be interesting to find out what the long term culture of ChatRoulette will be when it stops riding the press wave. Once a lot of people have seen the site, I think there will be less trolls because they won’t be able to shock returning users as much. At that point, it will end up developing into something between 4chan and a cool place where people can meet one another. If no changes are made to the site, it will probably migrate towards the 4chan side of the spectrum. However, if the developers reward non-offensive users or create segmented chats that cater to specific interests, the site could have a very interesting future.

  38. mari mac

    There’s also a site called that seems to have hopped on the bandwagon while the ChatRoulette servers were having problems! I met just as many cool people.

    Thanks for the input Dylan! The observation about riding the press wave is something I’m really interested in seeing – I’m wondering what the long term retention of this site will be since there’s not much in the way of chronicling your real time social networking.

  39. Melanie

    as a teacher of at risk youth, I can totally relate to what you’re saying about intergenerational exchange – the weirdness, boundaries and benefits. but the point that really resonated with me most was that about randomness and the social benefits of engaging it. Like you, I arrived on the net in the early days when it was almost entirely random in terms of social exchange. and like you, I benefited enormously from that – socially, emotionally, culturally, politically and otherwise. and as with any truly random experience of weak ties within the commons I think it’s an essential socialization that is increasingly absent in the corporate social networks that tend to reinforce echo chambers, which reinforces and strengthens demographic building and branding agendas. chat roulette however, leaves us to negotiate each other on a much more primal level and that’s interesting … and random (though engages a whole other set of interesting questions).

    right now, the most interesting “random” and intergenerational online experience I’ve had is doing pugs (random dungeons) in WoW. you are grouped by level and by class. So a 50yr old prof healer could be led around by a 15 year old tank. I could end up with just about any kind of person from the millions who have selected random play that day. And that’s what I love about it. and it’s truly “situated” learning – where the learner can self select their “teacher” or “collaborator” based on their own priorities and their perceptions of what other teammates have to offer. If you do poorly, you risk being “kicked” or smack talked. If you do well, you might be invited to do another random with the same group. And random gameplay in MMOs is very much a space of collaboration and curiosity. interestingly, the players most averse to random game play are also those who are least interested in leaving their comfort zones or echo chambers. I’ve talked to a lot of educators who, for example, cannot handle the smack talk in randoms (or pvp) so they refuse to even explore it.

    So if we’re going to explore randomness we also need to cultivate the virtues of getting out of our comfort zones, highlighting some of the risks as well as identifying the rules of engagement.

  40. Paul Orlando

    It’s fascinating how different media types bring forth different behaviors. I don’t think of the people on Chatroulette as “weird” in general as much as I think they are just fitting in with the culture that naturally came out of that medium.

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  43. Roger

    I must think of a recent podcast on huffduffer:rwwparade. They where talking about Augmented Reality and that basically all Social Media Sites would be an augmentation of what is the real world happening around us rather than a virtual reality since conversations here would really have impact on our everyday lives.

    Well I think that in the advent of the internet our conversations online were defined by how we talked offline. Even if ones identity was hidden our talk was somewhat based on empathy. I dont mean big feelings. But in every conversation one does face to face you reflect how the other´s perception of your talk might be (which is crucial for humans as a social animal). With SMS, chat, twits and stuff getting more and more I feel maybe we might loose this glimpses of assumption how the other might understand what is said.

    From time to time I fear we might be reclimbing the tower of babel. Only that we would understand each other but without comprehension.

    A friend of mine proposed to his girlfriend via SMS. He was lucky – she cried of happyness…

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  45. Nicolas Lassus

    I was watching this video on Vimeo about Chat Roulette: and then I thought: “Hey. This is the kind of stuff you would write about on Apophenia… and sure enough. A blog post about Chat Roulette!”

    In the video a young guy is quoted saying that the fun thing with Chat Roulette is that you get to take on different personas with different people. I feel that with new technologies, the meaning of identity is changing forever. Younger kids are getting very comfortable adjusting themselves and their behaviours to different audiences and environments. Definitely a potentially very useful skill to have in life. :o)

  46. Paul Orlando

    Nice post. Especially about how strangers and randomness aren’t to be feared. I agree. Strangers have helped me a lot, for example when I backpacked throughout Asia and Europe, I depended on asking strangers for directions, recommendations and certainly ended up making lots of friends along the way. If I had stuck to the safe guidebook way, I never would have really experienced the place. The best part about this world is the people. And any risks that you take in meeting those you don’t know are usually worth it.

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