Monday, March 08, 2010

Chatroulette: Giving Stranger Interactions a Bad Name

This morning, in less than fifteen seconds, I saw live video of:
  • 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
The penis was the last straw. I closed Chatroulette for the third and probably last time.

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.

14 comments, add yours!:

Jeff Stern said...

Chatroulette is revolutionary because of its simplicity.

When I was in b-school, a prof talked about how big sms was and had been in Asia, particularly in developing nations. While infrastructure necessary for high-quality, low-cost voice transmissions was not there, a cheap phone was able to keep people in touch via SMS. The first units were sold as toys basically, until the kids started using them and demonstrating their value (and market). Texting exploded in Europe and Asia way before the U.S. Chatroulette is not what this technology will become - it's just the start.

I think of Chatroulette as similar to 4chan. Someone saw a platform that had the potential to share cool stuff, and set up a community where anonymity and contribution (not pos or neg, just contribution) are highly valued. The communities that coalesced around these platforms seem to range from offbeat to perverted to dangerous (depending on your viewpoint) - as you might expect when anonymity and free expression are your core values.

Chatroulette is pretty innovative in its approach to interaction too. As Sam Anderson points out in the quote you selected, there is a perceived gaming/competitive aspect to this interaction. It's not designed in like foursquare, but you feel like you lose when people "next" you without warning.

Chatroulette is not designed to facilitate positive interactions with strangers. That would require rules and regulations (plus the programming scaffolding that would take time and money to develop). Like Jerry Springer's show and many current popular reality shows, chatroulette flourishes because it encourages our voyeurism in a relatively safe atmosphere and allows us to leave whenever we've had our fill.

So while I agree (for the most part) with your post title, I don't think that's why people are interested in chatroulette in the first place. I do think other, better, moderated systems will come along (I'd be shocked if there haven't been at least 50 pitches for "like chatroulette for dog owners/Christians/Indian expats/insert group" brought to VC's around the world already). Big, groundbreaking revolutionary technologies rarely make the founders rich in the long run. Someone does it first, then someone else does it better (and nowadays we may end up waiting for a third party to figure out how it makes money).

So sure, chatroulette is a novelty, but that doesn't mean it should be dismissed. And we shouldn't dismiss the things that make it popular - the voyeurism, the control you get and that you're willing to give up, the expectation that you'll see something bizarre, the hope that you'll make a meaningful human connection - these are all draws for chatroulette and removing part of the draw will strengthen the experience for some but weaken it for others. Sure, museums can do (and already have done) better than this. But surely there's much to learn from the incredible success of this platform designed by a teen in Russia for fun!

An interview with the founder is here:

Anonymous said...

I found a many-person version of this , ( 4 people instead of 2 in a room )..

demo of group chat roulette

Jeff said...

My only exposure to chatroulette has been indirect. But my thought experiments have been pretty much confirmed by reports I've read...

It's interesting to confront the consequences of pure anarchy in such raw terms.

By nature (well, maybe by nurture) I hate social convention and control mechanisms. But I do like to think I like earn.

So I particularly welcome any kind of data point that makes me rethink my prejudices.

People aren't necessarily going to be nice if you completely remove all social persuasion to the contrary.

Felix Edmundovich Dzerzhinsky (creator of the Soviet secret police) is known for the dictum "trust but verify".

It is interesting to consider what minimal feedback you might introduce into the chatroulette system to increase its attractiveness.

It is also interesting to contemplate that not everybody would agree.

Jeff said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jeff said...

"But I do like to think I like earn."

Egad! Make that "But I do like to think I like to learn."

I unfortunately don't actually earn, so maybe the Freudian slip was sub-intentially deliberate...

ABC said...

Chatroulette is not new or innovative at all. I remember using IRC to connect to strangers in the early 90s (and I was late in doing so) and ICQ used to have a "available for random chat" option. Using Skype to connect to strangers is something quite common (at least, in my experience), which even includes video. So, unlike Jeff does, I don't think we should be OK with Chatroulette just because it's new.

I agree with Nina. Chatroulette is horrible as it destoys one of the things that used to be so beautiful: random encounters with strangers. Museums (and artists) have always tried to encourage this process. What happens thanks to Chatroulette is that soon we can't put up a camera anymore for people to connect to others far away, as we'll expect Chatroulettesque behaviour on the other side.

Chatroulette (and especially all the media exposure it gets) makes it acceptable to do terrible things through media and processes we used to use to do beautiful things.

Jon P. said...

"It's a novelty, and a mostly depressing one at that. "

I totally agree with you, Nina. Nothing about chatroulette is particularly interesting or radical. Voyeurism trumps substantive interaction.

Mara said...

Everyone I know who has tried Chatroulette has seen a penis or two in the process...

Nina Simon said...

Jeff Stern,
Thanks for your thoughtful comment - you are making me see the world of Chatroulette a bit differently. I do think what frustrates me is its inability to live up to its potential - and so perhaps I'm hoping for those VC firms and third parties to take it to the next level.

That said, the game mechanic of "entertain me enough so I don't click Next" troubles me. It bothers me like the feedback loop of people giving out free beads to flashers at Mardi Gras. I'm all for nudity, but I don't want to be trained to expose myself for money or attention. While chatroulette isn't solely about body parts, the game mechanic does reward shocking, perverse actions and images, and I'm not thrilled about a system that optimizes for that.

Paul Orlando said...


Great post, but don't give up on strangers online. I do think you've hit upon something important -- that these random pairings don't really lead to deep interactions. But to Chatroulette users that's probably fine, since they're mostly using it like a game.

If you want to check out something like the application you describe at the end of your blog post, you might want to look at, which is a place for topic-based voice conversations (no video). Where Chatroulette interactions are fleeting at around 5 seconds long on average, on Chatfe, talks average about 5 minutes. If you have time to try it, let me know what you think.


Anonymous said...

the best of chatroulette: .. a funny blog :)

Anonymous said...

Somehow I doubt that Chatroulette gives stranger a bad name as there are normal conversation going on, it's just that time is required to find a decent person who is suited to your liking.

Cristina Bilich said...

I realize that this post is a bit old but I just wanted to drop u a comment about it and how I found it. I was on tonight, I have been on and off for the past hour trying to connect to someone but I've only encountered the same 4 people. an older, flabby nude guy "playing" with himself, 3 young euro-trash type guys and an american wearing a large fuzzy hat, sunglasses and dancing insanely to techno music before nexting after about 8 seconds. also the server is being slow to connect me to anyone else. I decided to Google search why the server was connecting slowly tonight when Google brought up your post! I read it, along with some of the comments and I thought it was really interesting! I'd like to point out here that I am a university student with a semester left before graduating with a Bachelor of Arts combined Honors degree in English and Cultural Studies and my reasons for being in have almost only ever been curiosity for educational purposes. I, like you have tried to engage people in conversation and have only been sucessful a hand full of times. I have been keeping tally for the past year. Anyway, I just wanted to say that I like your thoughts about chatr as something contradictory to a people connecting site. It really is- from my research, an 88% all about sex, perversion and voyeurism. the concept of "the gaze" is something to be thought of when viewing sites such as or chatr.. most people on them are simply there to see or be seen, shock value and awkwardness is expected and anticipated if not sought after. These social mediums use the webcamera as a tool for which people can make 1 of 2 decisions (neither of which have anything to do with meeting new people and establishing social connections): to show, or not to show ones self. *sigh* kind of makes you think that when you get to the bare facts about humanity, most people are only interested in "one" thing.
I'll be following your blog, please feel free to check out mine

rajender sharma said...

Chatroulette is good chat option. another is it's like omegle.