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Posted by on Feb 22, 2010 in Science & Technology, Society | 1 comment

No Need To Fear ChatRoulette

ChatRoulette, the web sensation that enables anonymous video and text chats, was written by a 17 year-old boy, ChatRoulette.pngAndrey Ternovskiy, who some suggest could be the next Mark Zuckerberg (he’s caught VC Fred Wilson’s attention). He learned to code beginning at age 11 and his family is said to have invested in the ChatRoulette site as it scaled up.

Here Andrey turns up in the NYtimes [Techmeme discussion]; here a Russia Today video interview with Ternovsky; here a sampling of ChatRoulette screenshots [backstory here] which may or may not be NSFW. For those of us subject to the buzz about this latest web phenom but disinclined to visit, Georgia Tech Ph.D. candidate Sarita Yardi provides an introduction:

I was recently asked, “If a parent wanted to know if their kid should be on ChatRoulette, what would you tell them?” My experience on ChatRoulette has been about 10% sexual voyeurs, about 10% performance art (people dressed in cat costumes), and about 10% signs (show me your [x]!). There are a few older people, but the remaining majority is young people (high school and college kids) mostly just hanging out, some giggling, some looking vaguely bored. Like with anything their kids do online or offline, I would advise parents to reflect on what they consider to be socially appropriate material for their own child and to teach their kids how to weigh the costs and benefits—and risks and rewards—of any site that they decide to hang out on online.

There are a couple of quickly emerging norms on ChatRoulette:

  • Clicking Next is not only socially acceptable, but it is expected.
  • Flashing signs or stuffed animals—unless they’re particularly amusing or clever—is considered trolling. People want to be face to face with other people.
  • People wouldn’t want to see people they know.
  • It’s like window-shopping where real people are behind the window. You can look, but you can’t touch, and you can move on if you’re not interested.

That via Danah Boyd, the noted youth and social media researcher. Boyd notes the controversial site has caused “yet-another moral panic about youth engagement online,” but Boyd’s far from panicked:

I find it endearing. ChatRoulette reminds me a lot of the quirkiness of the Internet that I grew up with. Like when I was a teen trolling through chatrooms, ChatRoulette is filled with all sorts of weird people. And most users ignore most other users until they find someone they find interesting or compelling. While the site was designed by a teen, minors do not dominate there (although there are plenty of young adults there). And, not surprisingly, teens on the site have ZERO interest in talking to older folks – even old folks like me. It’s the strangest pairing dynamic… You can click Next and they can click Next until something gels. And even though I might want to talk to teens on the site, they have no desire to talk to me. Imagine if I was a sketchy guy. Right: no interest. Likewise, the people who most want to talk to me – a young woman – are the people that I don’t want to talk to. So on and on and on we go clicking next until there’s a possible spark. It’s a game played by flaneurs walking the digital streets.

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.

I love the way that it mixes things up.

What’s the problem with strangers?

Strangers helped me become who I was. Strangers taught me about a different world than what I knew in my small town. Strangers allowed me to see from a different perspective. Strangers introduced me to academia, gender theory, Ivy League colleges, the politics of war, etc. So I hate how we vilify all strangers as inherently bad. Did I meet some sketchballs on the Internet when I was a teen? DEFINITELY. They were weird; I moved on. … I’d certainly love a filter – not just for teens but for my own eyes. (Then again, I’d also like a spam filter too… ) But I do hope that we can create a space where teens and young adults and the rest of us can actually interact with randomness again. There’s a cost to our social isolation and I fear that we’re going to be paying it for generations to come.

The NYTimes Week In Review had a story about the site yesterday, “fewer than 5,000 [people] were using the site at any one time during my first visit. When I checked last week, that number had jumped to 50,000.” NYMagazine’s look at ChatRoulette, The Human Shuffle, was one of the first and remains a definitive take on the site. 74% of readers in a Mashable poll have already visited ChatRoulette.

No longer a teen (and certainly no troll) I won’t be visiting. I’ve got plenty to watch between Netflix & Tivo.