The Internet’s new social media phenomenon allows you to chat face-to-face with a random selection of tens of thousands of human beings. It’s a very good reason to give thanks for South Africa’s poor, government-induced bandwidth.
My first chat partner was some young guy who got bored of me before I got bored of him. I was explaining that I was a reporter from South Africa; what did he think of the site? He yawned, and was out. Next, predictably, a voyeur service. The “tits-meter”: show us your breasts and we’ll give you a score out of ten. I wanted to participate, but didn’t think I could face the humiliation of a (near certain) failing grade. Then a studious-looking Asian woman. She was, apparently, uninterested in doing the cross-cultural thing with an unshaven white male – and who could blame her?
The closest I actually came this morning to talking to somebody on ChatRoulette was when I found an American college student staring back at me. We said “hey” to each other, and then South African infrastructure got in the way.
Was I disappointed? Did I swear at the screen? I’ll say this: only after an hour of online research did it occur to me that our magnificent Department of Communications might for once be doing us a favour. As Time magazine’s Dan Fletcher observed last week: “I’ve plumbed the depths of the Web, and one thing I’ve learned is that when you give anyone an open platform with anonymity and no moderating, it inevitably gets overrun by the lowest common denominators: trolls, exhibitionists and an endless stream of hopeful men prodding women to take off their clothes.”
Fletcher was responding to an essay in New York magazine by Sam Anderson, who’d written that on first visiting ChatRoulette he’d been primed for a Walt Whitman experience – “ecstatic surrender to the miraculous variety and abundance of humankind.” Sadly, by paragraph three, it was clear he never got it. “I entered the fray on a bright Wednesday afternoon, with an open mind and an eager soul, ready to sound my barbaric yawp through the webcams of the world. I left absolutely crushed. It turns out that ChatRoulette, in practice, is brutal.”
Anderson, no doubt, was posturing for effect. As is relatively well-known by now, ChatRoulette was created last November by a seventeen-year-old Russian named Andrey Ternovskiy: unlike Facebook and Twitter, social media phenomena to which it is sometimes compared, its control mechanisms are primitive. Where on Facebook and Twitter you choose the people whose lives (and perversions) you wish to gain access to, on ChatRoulette all you have is the “Next” button. The mix of webcam and Skype technology is random. Which means you’ll see a lot of what you don’t want to see before you see something you do. It’s naive, as Fletcher suggests, to expect anything less than “brutal” in such circumstances.
But that doesn’t mean ChatRoulette isn’t going to be huge. It’s been attracting intense media coverage of late, and today Boing Boing – the world’s largest blog – weighed in with an angle by someone named Dr Danah Boyd: “What I like most about the site is the fact that there’s only so much you can hide. This isn’t a place where police officers can pretend to be teen girls. This isn’t a place where you feel forced to stick around; you can move on and no one will know the difference. If someone doesn’t strike your fancy, move on. And on. And on.”
Fair enough. Thing is, when I logged back onto the site for a second time this morning, my opening chat partner was a guy masturbating. Viva the ineptitude of the Department of Communications, viva!
By Kevin Bloom