(This column was published in DNA edition dated February 17, 2010.)
Last week, a 26-year-old female acquaintance, a child of the Internet Age who lives more in the virtual world than in the flesh-and-blood one that I inhabit, introduced me to a free new online service called ChatRoulette. Started up by a 17-year-old schoolboy from Moscow barely months ago, it’s already being hyped as the kind of service that makes social media sites like Facebook seem oh-so-20th century. After Google Buzz’s colossal crash-bang of last week, when its founders had to perform self-flagellations in public following legitimate concerns over violation of users’ privacy, I’m a little underwhelmed by anything that’s spun as the ‘next’ whatever. Even so, since my acquaintance was a woman with great persuasive powers and charm, I took a peek into the parallel universe of ChatRoulette – and got considerably more than an eyeful!
On the website, visitors use a webcam to chat with a succession of perfect strangers from anywhere in the world, pulled out randomly from among the thousands online at any given time. Since there’s no registration or filtering involved, and you don’t get to choose whom you’ll chat with, it makes for a surreal social encounter for both parties. Either party may end a session – and select another random stranger. Given the users’ oftentimes varying expectations from the transaction, interactions prove exceedingly fleeting, barely microseconds in some cases. Most times, all you have is a flashcard of faces – and, on occasion, more intimate parts of the anatomy – flipping by on your screen, with little by way of active socialising.
For all its utter pointlessness, ChatRoulette has an oddly mesmeric quality to it, partly arising from the oddball nature of the characters you encounter, even if only fleetingly. Even discounting the preponderance of hormonal young adults engaged in various kinds of autoerotic practices and with an excessive eagerness to exhibit themselves to the world (and, on occasion, the hope that you might join in the fellowship of self-gratification), you run into the kind of quirky characters you don’t normally see outside of Quentin Tarantino films.
At one level, it’s like peeping into every window of every house on every street in a city, but not half as intrusive – because the window is kept open solely in the expectation that – and for the benefit of – passersby like you who will peep. But flip the mirror, and it’s you who has your window open to the world, and is interacting with everyone – from every corner of the world – who flits by. You’re both voyeur and exhibitionist at the same time.
More significant is what the growing popularity of such a service says about the future of social interactions shaped by a youthful Internet culture. The site’s teenaged founder says he started it up for fun because he and his friends had tired of talking to each other on the Internet, and ChatRoulette gave them a platform to connect randomly with other people. That has since undergone an evolution, influenced by users varying perceptions of what it stands for – some see it as a game, others as an alternative world. It’s even spawned an entire ancillary industry offering tips for richer social interactions.
On the Internet, it’s famously said, nobody knows you’re a dog. The anonymity of the medium lets us assume avatars we normally wouldn’t, and interact with people we’d otherwise never meet – nor wish to. But that anonymity also affords us the opportunity to step outside of our comfort zone and enter into parallel universes cloaked in invisibility.
For all its oddities and perversions and the complete lack of purpose, ChatRoulette creates one such parallel universe where we might learn that we’re all strangers in a strange land. It isn’t entirely inconceivable that someday you might meet a “perfect stranger” on that platform – and that stranger is you.