March 5, 2010

Log on, get off

Chat Roulette’s mix of theatrics and voyeurism ultimately disappoints

I played Chat Roulette for more time than I’d care to admit the other night, and I’m not entirely sure if I’ll do it again. For the uninitiated, Chat Roulette, ironically enough, developed by a Russian teenager, is a Web site (chatrt.com) that randomly connects your webcam with some other webcam anywhere in the whole world. The two of you can talk for as long as you like, or you can skip ahead as quickly as you like. The apparent theory behind this is that you’ll be exposed to complete strangers and thus be able to make connections with people you’d otherwise never meet. As a warning, know that you will also be exposed to a lot of other things, especially after 9 p.m.

Chat Roulette is perhaps best sampled for the first time in a group environment—at least, that’s how I did it. Traveling in groups on Chat Roulette provides the same safety that traveling in groups in “real life” provides. Don’t get me wrong—the whole thing is pretty harmless as long as you don’t do anything incredibly stupid, like reveal your social security number. Even so, having friends around helps keep the experience light and impersonal, because for all the social interaction that is supposed to happen, Chat Roulette is an alienating experience. It’s far from guaranteed that you’ll come out of it feeling like you have actually been “connecting with a partner” as the text box proclaims as it sets up a video chat connection. (Creepily enough, this text alternates with “looking for a stranger,” but who ever thought Chat Roulette wasn’t creepy?)

The fact is, you spend a lot of time waiting around for other people, real people—not just blurry, flesh-colored movement, or the corner of an arm or maybe a leg, or a plain black box—to show up on your screen. Then, once you’ve found a real person, you might just get skipped right away. Sometimes they do stick around, and you might have a good conversation. But most of the time, you’ll find yourself with nothing to say, and nothing to do except skip ahead.

This last part—the part where you have nothing to say—is not a fault of the interface, but rather of the users. For my own part, I know why we were F9ed, another word for skipping due to the function of the F9 key, so quickly: We were being boring. If you’re going to believe my mother about this (“If you’re bored, it’s because you’re boring, Alison! Go make your own fun!”—thanks, Mom), then the whole Chat Roulette system is full of boring people boring other boring people. Most of the time, when we weren’t reading Pablo Neruda poems out loud, or Cosmo horoscopes, we were trying to make small talk with people. I’ll admit, most of our small talk was geared toward the wonderful hairstyles we saw. There was the Spaniard with the wonderful moustache, the other Spaniard with the wonderful sideburns, the French boy with the wonderful fauxhawk. I think he was my favorite.

In any case, people don’t go on Chat Roulette to make small talk, not really. The apparent fun of anonymous video chatting is that you can act however and say whatever you want, because you will never ever see your connections again. So people go on there seeking the outrageous—users who wear gorilla masks or Stormtrooper masks or Guy Fawkes masks, or who maybe just aren’t wearing anything. It’s a mode of entertainment, and everyone is out for his or her own fun. So, you are either the skipper or the skipped, and you are either a desirable partner or you aren’t. Or you’re masturbating to the camera, and that’s just gross.

On the positive side, Chat Roulette is bound to be interesting, just based on pure probability. But this is only after a lot of waiting. To me, that makes it intrinsically unsatisfying—not because delayed gratification is bad, but because this gratification is at the expense of connecting with real people in real life. And while playing the game with your friends takes the sting off, it makes you wonder what other things you could be doing with all that time instead.

— Alison Howard is a second-year in the College majoring in English.