by Rob Cesternino
Like many people, I’ve become obsessed with the very popular, very new, very strange Web site—Chatroulette.com.
The idea behind the site is simple: There are two video feeds, one of you at the bottom of the page and one of a random stranger from anywhere in the world at the top, connected via webcam and text chat. It is possible you may be connected to the person of your voyeuristic wildest dreams, but far likelier you’ll find someone or something from your worst nightmare. At any point, either party can hit the “NEXT” button to try again with someone else.
While the site offers many things to many people, at its essence it asks one question of us all: “What do you say or do when momentarily connected to a complete stranger whom you will never see again?”
The answers to that question range from the amazing to the surprising to the obscene to the (frequently) bizarre. In order to try to understand more about why this idea has captivated so many people (myself included), I decided to attempt to have an actual conversation with 10 people on Chatroulette—something easier said than done.
The rules of this experiment were simple: I was not going to hit “NEXT” at any time (I ended up doing it four times when connected to a minor and one time to a person who was not talking). I would attempt to talk to every person that came up, no matter who they were or what they were doing. For the purposes of this experiment, a conversation needed to go on for at least one minute.
I did this experiment on a Friday night around 9 p.m. The time of the experiment may say a lot about who I found, but probably says more about me, since I would imagine that most really cool people aren’t doing experiments at any time (let alone on a Friday night).
Before I get to the 10 people I met, here are some interesting facts about my experiment:
• Before getting to talk to 10 people for at least a minute, I ended up being NEXTed 84 times, 79 times by men and five times by women. Most often, I was NEXTed before I even said a word or waved hello. I found myself relieved when the men would NEXT me, but I found it very insulting when a woman NEXTed me—it was as if she was saying I wasn’t good enough to talk to her.
• In the couple of hours it took me to talk to these 10 people, I only saw one penis and two guys in their underwear. This is a statistical anomaly because, as anyone who has spent more than 10 minutes on Chatroulette will tell you, there are a lot of dicks (in more ways than one). However, this did save me from many potentially awkward conversations that the rules of this experiment would not have allowed me to NEXT.
• More often than not, any attempt to say hello to a fellow young man was not received well. In fact, it seemed to make just about every guy mad that I didn’t immediately hit the NEXT button upon seeing him. Ninety-nine percent of these guys are looking for women and specifically women who will take off their tops. Some have signs asking to trade BOOBS for a glimpse of their penis or even for a donation to Haitian relief efforts. In my fleeting conversations with these guys, I was cursed at and called various politically incorrect names before they NEXTed me. A few made fun of my shirt and one made fun of my pencil. I said hello to one guy and he gave me the finger. I asked “What did I do?” and he replied sincerely, “Nothing, it’s not your fault” and then NEXTed me too.
• I found that if more than one person is in a room, it was almost certain they would make fun of me. In fact, the more people in the room, the higher the likelihood they would start yelling out wisecracks at me. This phenomenon increases exponentially for every additional guy in the room or young girl at a slumber party.
Here are the 10 people I met on Chatroulette:
1) Two college dudes in a dorm room in Denver
After being NEXTed at first sight about a dozen times off the bat, two guys in a dorm room decide to give me a chance. They have a dart board and one is wearing a derby hat. They seem normal, or as normal as anybody else I’ve seen on Chatroulette. I ask them what is the craziest thing they have encountered in their cyber travels, and they mention the male genitals they’ve seen because this is ALWAYS the answer. They go on to tell me a story where they were connected to a guy who was burning his girlfriend with cigarettes. They didn’t know whether it was real or not and they just hit NEXT. They seem to like Chatroulette although they seem a little bit bored. Our rather normal and pleasant conversation ends abruptly—either they NEXTed me without warning (like a virtual ejector seat) or there was a problem with the site (which happens all too often).
2) A man in his 50s in New York City
The second person I end up speaking with is an older guy with thick black-rimmed glasses, who looks a bit like Philip Seymour Hoffman in the movie Capote. He types to me that he cannot use his microphone because his wife is asleep and he prefers we type to each other. He seems to think there is someone else in the room with me and I reassure him there is not.
He notices I have an exercise bike and comments he has one too. He asks me if I would like to ride the exercise bike and he suggests that I wear spandex. I politely decline. We make a little more small talk about the snow and the site—he feels like he is the oldest person using Chatroulette (though I have found there is a large older male population, made up overwhelmingly of perverts).
He makes a passing comment about my “hotness” before I ask him what is the craziest thing he has seen on Chatroulette? I soon realize this question is a mistake. He replies [all misspellings are typed here as-is from his original text to me, by the way]: “Yu, dancing to Byonce’s SIngle Ladies in the nude (wishfulthinking :)).” I find this odd on a number of levels. It’s not enough that I am being sexually harassed, but he’s looking for me to sing and dance as well? Secondly, I hate when people use emoticons on Chatroulette. There is no need to use text to smile, wink, laugh out loud or make the tongue-hanging-out-of-your mouth sign BECAUSE I CAN SEE YOUR FACE. I politely reply that I’m going to see what else is out there before hitting NEXT.