- a guy on the phone, lounging in front of his computer
- a guy taking a photo of me while ignoring simple questions
- a guy who used a mirror effect to look like an alien
- a penis
Chatroulette is an online service that allows you to videochat with random strangers. It pairs you up automatically with other users to talk, and you can click "Next" at any time to jump to someone else (as I did to penis-guy, and as all three of the other users did to me). It's in the same vein as Omegle (a text-based "talk to strangers" system), and it's attracting a lot of media attention and tens of thousands of concurrent users.
Chatroulette frustrates me. It drives me nuts that it's being called "groundbreaking" in the realm of human-to-human interactions. Chatroulette is not groundbreaking, nor is it threatening to the social fabric of society. It's a novelty, and a mostly depressing one at that. Chatroulette exacerbates the perception that stranger interactions are uncomfortable, weird, and often sexual in nature. It encourages people to see each other as entertainment instead of as human beings. And because users use the "Next" button so liberally--to escape gross users, to find someone interesting--the fundamental activity on Chatroulette is not chatting or connecting with strangers. It's evaluating people. In most cases, within two seconds, you or the person with whom you are videochatting decides that the other person is not worth their time. And that means you reject or are rejected by others, multiple times each minute. What an unpleasant feeling. As New York reporter Sam Anderson put it:
I got off the ChatRoulette wheel determined never to get back on. I hadn’t felt this socially trampled since I was an overweight 12-year-old struggling to get through recess without having my shoes mocked. It was total e-visceration. If this was the future of the Internet, then the future of the Internet obviously didn’t include me.Chatroulette strips away all of the social conventions and scaffolding we use to relate to strangers in public. The interactions are private, which means there's no external social pressure to conform. The interactions are anonymous, which means there's no need to be accountable for your actions. And the interactions are fleeting, which promotes shock value and immediate, dramatic actions. These three characteristics make Chatroulette just about the worst environment possible for interacting with and potentially relating to strangers. It may be a fun plaything for people who like to provoke and be provoked. Occasionally it's a place for a surprising cross-cultural encounter. But it's rarely a place for building relationships--even the simplest kinds--among strangers.
Chatroulette frustrates me most because it doesn't live up to its potential. I blame that deficiency on lack of scaffolding of the social interactions. I can't help but think how much better it would be if the system provided an external prompt--a challenge or a topic to discuss. I could imagine having a great time on videochat debating the merits of a piece of art with a stranger, trying to solve a puzzle together, talking about a news event, or sharing stories. Each time I've tried to initiate this kind of interaction on Chatroulette, my partner in videochat has disconnected from me, leaving me feeling rejected and dejected. While I've heard stories of people dancing with strangers on Chatroulette and generally sharing surprising experiences, the first three attempts/five minutes of use didn't make me want to soldier on in search of positive encounters.
I've had some fabulous interactions with strangers in comparably open-ended environments that offered just a bit more designed structure. Think of the Internet Arm Wrestling exhibit, which allows people to virtually arm wrestle with strangers in science centers around the US. When you sit down to use it, you grasp a metal arm (meant to simulate your competitor’s arm) and are connected to another visitor at an identical kiosk. This visitor may be a few feet from you in the same science center or hundreds of miles away at another science center. You receive a “go” signal, and then you start pushing. The metal arm exerts a force on your arm equal to the force exerted by your remote partner on his own metal arm. Eventually, one competitor overpowers the other, and the game is over.
The Internet Arm Wrestling exhibit, like Chatroulette, connects strangers via webcams in short-term, shared encounters. But because the exhibit experience is focused on a third thing--the arm wrestling competition--visitors are generally playful and positive with each other and walk away from the experience having enjoyed a unique connection with a stranger.
Bringing a "third thing" into the Chatroulette ecosystem would help people interact in a civil manner. It would also help them interact, period. Many times on Chatroulette, I've been connected to someone and we stare at each other, uncertain of how to start a conversation in such a decontextualized environment. And so, out of embarrassment or discomfort or uncertainty, one or both of us click "Next." I've learned that holding up signs or puppets, or playing a musical instrument, helps lengthen chat time. These are all social objects that help get the conversation going.
I could imagine a delightful application on a museum website that would allow me to chat with a stranger about a featured artifact or artwork. The object and the context of the museum website would both provide framing and structure that would likely make for a positive encounter. I could imagine a game in which people were paired up and asked to construct a vision of a better future. I could imagine virtual advice booths, with strangers helping each other solve their problems. Instead, we got Chatroulette--another nail in the coffin for those who believe that peaceful, positive, useful interactions among strangers, especially on the internet, are unlikely.
Now let's go out and design something better to prove them wrong.