Students take a gamble with Chatroulette
New networking site draws disgust and excitement from Jumbos
Published: Thursday, March 4, 2010
Updated: Thursday, March 4, 2010 12:03
As the newest incarnation of instant Web connectivity, Chatroulette.com has been leaving users in an excited frenzy over a fresh form of cyber exposure. Users beware, though: All who enter do so at their own risk. Five minutes on the site might result in seeing and speaking with anyone from a group of partygoers in Berlin to a silent pornographic image to a lonely student living only a few miles away.
The Web site provides users with a means of communicating with complete strangers anywhere in the world using text-, webcam- and microphone-based chat. Users have the option to "next" chat partners whom they find to be boring or unsavory. Developed by 17-year-old Russian Andrey Ternovskiy in November 2009, the site has soared in popularity and garnered over one million different users in January alone, according to a recent Associated Press article.
The Web site's creator had remained a mystery until a few weeks ago, when Ternovskiy revealed his identity to The New York Times' Bits blog.
Although Chatroulette has taken Internet communication to the next level of visibility, it isn't necessarily a new phenomenon, according to Experimental College lecturer Philip Primack. Primack hasn't yet used the site but is familiar with it.
"It is bringing back the old chat room: instant access, instant connection," Primack said.
Chatroulette has certainly caught the attention of the Jumbo community, as experimenting with the Web site in different environments has proved to be an amusing distraction for some students.
Senior Sarah Ullman was introduced to Chatroulette while rehearsing for the play "Hedda Gabler" earlier this semester in the dressing room of the Aidekman Arts Center.
"When we finally got Internet in the dressing rooms, a whole new world opened up," Ullman said. "Someone told me about Chatroulette right then, and we went on so much while we were hanging out."
The context in which Ullman and her friend participated on the site proved to enhance their amusement with the site.
"When I used Chatroulette, we were in costume. My friend had a maid costume on because she played a maid in the show," Ullman said. "A lot of funny reactions were from people who were really into the fact that we were in costume."
Others, like senior Charlotte Steinway, have chosen to use the site as a "pregame" to their evening, with many students sitting around the computer playing the game prior to leaving for a party or event.
"I've been on the site about 10 times since I first heard about it. Initially, I took baby steps into ‘chatrouletting' — starting with a huge group of friends as an activity before going out, but I slowly built up the courage to do it alone," Steinway said. "It's more fun that way because you can actually have conversations with people."
With virtually no monitoring apart from the ability to report other users with a click of a button, Chatroulette offers a potent taste of cyber freedom, which Primack notes can go both ways.
"Chatroulette becomes a symbol for everything that is so great about the Internet and everything that isn't so great," Primack said. "The bad news is it ratchets up some of the negative issues like voyeurism, stalkers, risks to children and the Wild West aspect of the Internet."
Accordingly, students have had experiences on the site that cater to both ends of the Internet spectrum.
"As a sociology major, I find the Web site fascinating. I don't know if it's the fact that it lacks social norms, enables a kind of rapid conversation not found in other forums, or that it randomly links you with strangers — not contingent on any basis of former knowledge or general selectivity," Steinway said. "It's a leveling device for social interaction. Chatroulette doesn't discriminate by age, race or class — it only requires that users have a computer."
Though Steinway cited one of her favorite experiences on the site as the time she met a middle-aged woman who turned out to be a landlord at Tufts, even such instances of "it's a small world" don't trump other memorably odd face-to-face interactions.
"Once a 90-year-old man was dancing in a diaper to carnival music, which I witnessed while procrastinating from studying in Tisch," Steinway said.
Junior Michael Goldsmith plays Chatroulette between three and five times per week — and like Steinway, typically with a large group of friends before partying.
"I think the funniest thing I've encountered while using the Web site was a woman who sucked on her own toes at my command," Goldsmith said.
Not every Chatroulette conversation is notable for its tame entertainment value.
"It feels sort of illicit — it's a little bit scary who will come up next. You talk to some pretty strange people," Ullman said. "It's actually pretty repulsive when you see things you don't want to see. I've seen some body parts and some pretty graphic scenes of self-harm, and that sort of takes the whole fun out of the experience. It's part of what you get when you play."
Ullman expressed concern for the potential for people to use the site as a venue for doing things that are harmful to themselves or to others.
"I take issues of suicide and depression very seriously, so to see an image of someone on Chatroulette hanging there or on the floor dead is worrisome," Ullman said. "My friend told me once that some of the images are from weird movies that I've never seen, so they aren't real, but I obviously didn't know that, and it doesn't sit right."
Steinway also has felt unnerved by certain events or images on the screen.
"Initially, I was shaken by the people who just troll — post fake images of bizarre things, including pornographic and overtly violent devices — especially this one image that I took to be a suicide," Steinway said. "Luckily, I soon learned that those are false images used solely to illicit a visceral reaction."