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The Shady Bunch

News & Features | February 21, 2010

I saw nineteen dicks last Saturday night.

Nope, I wasn’t invited to some secret orgy that none of the rest of you knew about (and I wouldn’t tell you if I was). I didn’t go the frat-tastic fun route, if that’s what you’re wondering. Instead, unintentional voyeurism was the direct result of my introduction to chatroulette.com, a web site that advertises itself as a “service for one-on-one … chat with people around the world”

Chat Roulette, like most Internet forums, brings all the pervs and lonely hearts of the world together in one place. Why do we love talking to strangers so much? Why is the concept of chatting with someone we have no connection to so intriguing?

Chat Roulette is cast from the same mold as conversation-centered web sites like Omegle; the site pairs you with a random user—any user!—just as soon as you click “Play.” However, unlike its precursors, which rely on text-based interaction reminiscent of those seventh-grade AIM conversations (“wuts up?” “n2m u?” “jc lolz”), Chat Roulette boasts the advantage—or, in the case of the unwanted nudity, the distinct disadvantage—of using video technology to connect its users. That’s right: when you choose Chat Roulette, typing is replaced by good old-fashioned talking. Your partners look you in the eye (and occasionally in the cleavage)—it’s just like carrying on a normal conversation.

Unlike real life, though, you don’t have to suffer through any awkward silences—if your conversation partner is boring or holding up a sign saying “Hot Chix! Show Ur Tits,” all you have to do is hit “Next” (unless, of course, you’re really into making someone’s Girls Gone Wild fantasies come true). Your new chat buddy’s smiling face will materialize on your laptop within seconds, and the cycle of strangers-gone-personal begins again. Thanks to the miracles of modern technology, the more creative among us don’t even have to speak to bond— my friend Ira performed an enthusiastic rendition of the funky chicken dance and was reciprocated with several arm flaps, two thumbs-ups, a lewd wink, and one virtual high-five. Chat Roulette is social networking on speed and, occasionally, sans manners.

You’ll find all types of people on chatroulette.com— there’s no basic user profile. I met a widowed grandmother of twelve who likes to bake Italian butter cookies and is “just looking for somebody to talk to.” My friends and I spoke for 20 minutes with a good-looking guy named John from the Coast Guard Academy (Dear John, if you’re reading this, we forgot to get your number). I talked Avatar with a buttoned-up businessman. I helped a teenage girl choose between two shades of violet for her room, which she is painting herself during April vacation. I laughed. I cried. I hastily Nexted dicks.

And when I signed off, I was done. I didn’t feel that subtle pull, that “just five more minutes” mantra that all-too-frequently compels me to spend half an hour perusing Facebook, only to check it again fifteen minutes later. Though you won’t find chatroulette.com on my Top Sites list, I can’t quite forget about it either.

Yes, Chat Roulette seems to be the next step in the inevitable incorporation of technology into our lives. And my friends insist it’s all in good fun. Some even go so far as to insist that technology based interaction is the new way to make friends and form relationships. But can the genuine emotion that permeates face-to-face interaction—first-date butterflies, impossible-to-stop laughter—be replicated through a makeshift world of computer screens and video cameras? In a few decades, when kids ask their grandparents how they met, mouse clicks, web cameras, and emoticons will probably punctuate their romance.

Do I embrace it, this “everything-goes” cyber world of sociality? Better question: would I want my little sister using Chat Roulette? Hell no. The gaggles of giggling middle-school girls whispering to each other and waving bashfully into their computer screens make me cringe. I’m against censorship as much as the next person, but come on. There are no rules on Chat Roulette, hence the veritable plethora of penises. Anything goes, which is the main reason I left and won’t be coming back.

I don’t think there’s anything Chat Roulette offers that you can’t find in the real world. Whether you’re searching for meaningful conversation, lasting romance, or sex, it’s out there— minus grainy images and malfunctioning microphones. Go ahead and check out chatroulette.com, but when you finally hit “End,” recognize that it’s no substitute for real life. In the end, the people who take it seriously, the ones looking for connections, probably end up lonelier than before.

Of course, if you’ve got a fetish for participating in peepshows with strangers, enjoy!