Chatroulette: shot in the head or savior of society?

By Hazel Schaeffer

During my Italian classes in high school, my teacher gave us many prompts: you are lost in Rome, ask for directions; you are in a grocery store, buy food for a picnic.There was one we didn’t get to: you are videochatting with a stranger. What will you say? What will you show? Perhaps she should have. These days, Chatroulette is the place I most often use my Italian.

After hitting the “play” button, the web site sets up a videochat between you and a random stranger with a text chat panel on the side. At any point, either party can hit the “next” button to receive a new partner.

Stranger: why did you study italian?
Stranger: it is a dead language, such as latin
You: e una lingua molti bella (it’s a beautiful language)
Stranger: aren’t you catholic?!?!?!?
You: e la cultura e magnifica (and the culture is magnificent)
Stranger: I know only ignorant people
You: ?
Stranger: where’s culture?

He also said that Chatroulette was very “schifoso.” To explain the word (which means strange) he said, “come la pizza con ananas (like pizza with pineapple).”

Chatroulette was started by Andrey Ternovskiy, a seventeen-year-old high school student from Moscow. According to an e-mail he sent to a New York Times reporter, Ternovskiy created the site in November of 2009 to allow his friends to Skype with strangers. He does all the coding himself, and the site uses seven servers in Frankfurt, Germany. He said that most of users are from the United States, though he himself has never been.

Professor John Kim, HMCS, first went on the site a couple months ago after hearing about it from his students. He’s noticed that it has changed in the time since his initial encounter. He said it used to be a space for conversation, but that it has shifted to “web porn” content.

Kim said he was very impressed with some Chatroulette screen shots he saw in an article. One man was dressed up in a cheetah suit and makeup, while another had covered his face with clothespins.

“Wow [I thought], I didn’t see any of that creativity when I was on Chatroulette. So I went back on, hoping or expecting to see some of that. artistic exploration.”

He didn’t, but he says he is still impressed with the site. Chatroulette “seemed to capture what the Internet was like years ago . The Internet is becoming increasingly more enclosed-you only engage with that network of friends that you have on Facebook and few people are willing to let in strangers. Different websites are more and more about creating these gated communities,” he said.

Yet Kim says he hopes this openness could “translate back into real material life. It would be really great if we could create software that would encourage people to feel comfortable in the privacy of their own home to have conversations with random strangers, but have that occur in non virtual spaces. It could break us out of the preoccupation with privacy and gated-ness that we have seem to have moved as a society.”

Kim says he imagines this could be possible if computer screens became so small that you could carry them with you, possibly imbedded in eye-glasses. He asked me to imagine if I was near a stranger, “and some information popped up about a mutual friend we had in common,” prompting a conversation to start.

“I do think we need to repair communities,” he says. “We’ve been too preoccupied with our privacy.”

Does Chatroulette offer a way to escape societal problems? Many people say they use the site to have conversations, face-to-face (or other body parts), with people from all over the world.

Tuesday night I began a conversation with a 24-year-old man from Madrid.

Stranger: What brings you here?
You: I guess just to chat with people.

Stranger: Maybe not the best place, I mean everyone is looking for sex.

So there you have it. Maybe it should be renamed sexroulette.

Chatroulette doesn’t really seem to have caught on at Mac. Many have heard of it, but I’ve encountered few enthusiasts.

Lillie Taggart ’12 tried it last week with a group of friends who held a teddy-bear up to the built in camera. When I asked her if she would do it again, she gave a definite no. “I’m not that desperate to talk to people. But I don’t find it to be dangerous,” she said.

Vasa Trubetskoy ’11 Chatrouletted with some housemates during dinner. “The level of conversation is very low. It just brought dinner down.”

I first went on Chatroulette two weeks ago. I heard about it in The Mac Weekly office, but it sounded too bizarre to try. My roommate from last year, Grace Fleming ’12, convinced me to try it. During finals week last year, she introduced me to, so I trust her to provide me with the best the Internet has to offer.

When I went over to Fleming’s room to interview her she suggested we simultaneously Chatroulette. We spoke to the first guy for a minute before he asked us to flash him. When we didn’t, another guy walked into the room and exposed himself.

“That pretty much sums up Chatroulette. Somebody asks to see your boobs and a guy walks on the screen, dick out,” Fleming said.

It is not uncommon to encounter streaming of a man masturbating. What are the odds? Unlike Russian Roulette, the game where you place one bullet into the chamber of a revolver, spin, hold the gun to your temple and press the trigger, your odds are not as high as one in six. Of the three times I’ve done it, once I was on for an hour and saw zero penises. The site also has a “report” button for offensive substance. People don’t seem to use it though.

When I asked Fleming if she ever reported people she said, “I can’t. It’s instinct to hit next.”

Fleming says that the sexual content can be entertaining, not just disgusting. Once she said, when she had the camera pointed away from her, the stranger pleaded to see some part of her.

Stranger: Let me see your hand
[She waved her hand across the camera]
Stranger: Let me see your hand again
Stranger: Where are you from
You: the US
Stranger: Let me see your hand again

Another time, a man asked her to flash him.

Stranger: just flash your bra, no boobs
You: why would you want to see bra when you could watch full on sex online?
Stranger: I’m not in the mood for that

Deborah Smith, who teaches the Sociology of Sexuality, agreed to watch over my shoulder as I Chatrouletted in her office. She said she was too afraid to go on herself. Out of ten partners, I was nexted about half the time. We were exposed once.

Smith says she can understand why it is so appealing for men to, “grab the forum and grab their genitals and do something against the rules, and have a split second over you the viewer.” Chatroulette lets these men, “break bonds of a society [they interpret as] repressive and also play out male sexual power by assert masculinity,” through exposure.

Smith said that these instances of flashing are a win-win situation for the man. If you next him, he “interprets the female’s click as an indication that he’s shocked you.” If you don’t, they know they have attracted your interest.

But the appeal of the site is not limited to these men who are labeled as creeps. It also allows for the “pleasure of social interactions without the responsibilities.”

“What is it about spin the virtual bottle and gambling? For one second you are committing yourself to fate. [There’s the] thrill of throwing luck to fate without the risk. You have the power to abort fate’s choice,” Smith said.

Initially Smith said that “you can’t lose here.” However she started to change her mind.

“Just when you were on [Chatroulette] and people clicked you off, that hurt me.” There is also the moment of guilt when you “next” someone who isn’t offending you, but is just being boring.

Interestingly, Kim and Smith saw more positive aspects to the site than students did, saying that it encourages social interactions in
a society becoming increasingly concerned with privacy.

In Russian Roulette, there is a one and six odds of shooting yourself in the head. The options on Chatroulette are more diverse, if not infinite. Is it worth the risk? Is there a risk at all?

According to Kim, it’s all just “awkward and more awkward.”

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