My first experience with Chatroulette was spent on a couch in my friend Dane’s apartment about three months ago. We had heard of the inexplicable phenomena and had been warned about people who use it, but still we tried it.
Like the victims in a horror movie who decide to separate and search for the killer, we made our poor decision early and were met with shock, awe and one situation that actually appeared to be bloody. And the worst part: The killer was calling from inside the house.
Chatroulette is an Internet game of sorts created by a Russian teenager and electronically based off of Russian roulette. That alone should have given me a heads up. The site on which it operates, chatroulette.com, connects random strangers via video chat across two screens and lets them interact as awkwardly, drunkenly or sexually as they choose. Predictably, the third option is the most popular, and I’d say about one in every three users I encountered on the site was just a hand moving up and down. Actually, it would have been better if all I saw were the hand.
In a span of about 15 minutes, we saw seven people and two-and-a-half penises and felt entirely too uncomfortable to continue. The first time we logged on was the worst: The idea sounds exciting to the inexperienced rouletter, but once you log on, you discover that small talk is just as ungraceful when it’s happening on the screen of your Powerbook.
“Hi.” Should I tell this person my name? Should I adopt a fake one? Would they believe me if I said it was Mordecai? Can they track me down? Would they eat my brain? How many Hannibal Lecter movies have they seen?
“What’s going on?” This part of the dialogue can also be substituted with “Wassup?”
“Nothing much. Just chatrouletting.” Oh, right.
“Cool. Same here.”
“ ... ”
And so it goes. As our new young friend sat somewhere in his parents’ basement and wondered what bus had hit us that morning, we began to regret our decision. What should we say? This was followed quickly by: Oh my god, are we boring? Because my interests center almost entirely on an obsession I have with the British rock band Oasis, my default awkward setting is always to bring it up.
“Do you like the band Oasis?”
That’s right. Like the MTV show and most middle school dodgeball games, Chatroulette gives you the next option, with which you click a button saying something similar to “Find another serial killer” and pass a person up. If you are bored with, terrified by or simply not aroused by the person with whom the computer connects you, you may find a more interesting, less creepy or more desirable option. Or you could find a penis.
Dane and I were nexted several times, and our original reaction was to take offense. Why don’t these people like me? What’s wrong with them? We could literally have been video chatting with the Zodiac killer, but our nervousness declined when we felt personally affronted. That guy’s shirt had Homer Simpson on it, and he has a Pomeranian. He thinks he’s too good for us?
The most practical reason for our rejection was probably that we appeared to be a couple. A study performed by TechCrunch using nearly 3,000 chat encounters showed that one of every eight revealed material that was R-rated, “or worse,” according to the site. (Wait, worse?) Because neither one of us was alone, that room packed with at least 10 Asian women nexted us and so did about five different single men. In the approximately 15 minutes we spent on the site, we had one stilted conversation about Oasis, one chat about the Lord of the Rings trilogy with a man in his 50s in California (“I liked Frodo, too.” “Me, too.” “Cool.”) and the aforementioned accounts of genitalia.
So, in the 20 minutes preceding the first 500 words of this column, I tried it on my own. I have never actually seen a Mexican lucha libre wrestling match, but on my first attempt, I happened on what appeared to be a solo match. In a small office somewhere on the planet, this man sat staring into his computer screen and my eyes, wearing nothing but a luchador mask. This man was not wearing a shirt. This man did not speak. At all. This writer pressed the “next” button.
The next room into which the site transported me featured several men who had a less-than-charming sense of humor. They thought the sign they were holding, which read “Show me your b00bs,” was particularly funny. I did not. This difference of opinions ended our brief interaction and I again pressed next — only to happen upon a naked man. The rule of thirds is not in my favor.
At its most basic level, Chatroulette is the worst kind of voyeurism — the perverted kind. However, I suppose it is possible — and almost romantic, if you think very hard about it — for one lonely person to make friends with another lonely person with the saving grace of random online video chatting. It is also possible for minors to get into trouble, but it’s what the site says about society that strikes me the most. And what it says is “Stranger is typing.”
You and a stranger in a luchador mask are alone in a two-person video chat room, and that stranger is typing. Or staring. It sounds like a bad joke. Even the site’s powers that be cannot find a pronoun to replace the uncomfortable silence that is waiting for a stranger to do something — anything. And there's a good chance that thing is R-rated — or worse.
Kelsey Whipple is the editor of Vox. She does not understand how anyone could think that Oasis is just "OK."