Virtual gets virtu-real

A new Web chat service brings global communication to the “next” level.

by Jenna H. Beyer

Pulsing with excitement, a friend recently told me about Chatroulette, a new Internet service that connects people via webcam for random chatting. âÄúWe have to get together and do it soon!âÄù she said, âÄúAnd maybe dress up in costumes!âÄù We did, and what I found was a mix of nostalgia and novelty. The nostalgia came first, harkening back to an ancient time when the Internet was still in diapers and, to me, just a few crappy search engines and text-based chat rooms to waste the time away in my parentsâÄô basement. I felt compelled to share âÄú24/f/mplsâÄù more than once. Except now, people could see my face. At first, it made me feel vulnerable. ChatrouletteâÄôs main feature, the âÄúNextâÄù button, immediately connects a user to a new âÄúpartner.âÄù One second youâÄôre staring at the face of a stranger from France, the next itâÄôs someone from New York or Ohio. I even got the opportunity to visit with a Tunisian. I barely got their names, but I saw their bedrooms, mannerisms and late-night computer trances. Of course, Chatroulette is ideal for creeps. In a few hours, I saw more than 12 penises and was asked bluntly to reveal things I wasnâÄôt interested in revealing, but (after some wine) my weekend rounded out to contain two full moons. Chatroulette reminds us that weâÄôll behave obscenely, if only because we can. At the least, weâÄôll dress in costume and sit on the couch together, typing questions. âÄúWhat country are you from?âÄù âÄúWhat time is it there?âÄù Most of us are only willing to push the envelope of obscenity so far, and some still retreat to anonymity. âÄúWhy are you wearing a Bill Clinton mask?âÄù When a pair of partying Germans said âÄúI would look your ass âĦâÄù I didnâÄôt pry for clarification; I just hit âÄúNext.âÄù Tired of penises, some get creative and hold up signs to ward off unsolicited requests: âÄúSorry IâÄôm not topless or jerking off,âÄù read one. But if itâÄôs packed with pervs, why keep using Chatroulette? Possibly because it would be possible to witness just about anything on Chatroulette; its immediate randomness is addictive. With over 20,000 users chatting at any time (according to the Web site), could I run into my ex from Arizona? People I avoid in person? Celebrities? Slim chance, but it does exist. ChatrouletteâÄôs true appeal is in its capability to warm the heart. I had candid dialogues with other young, wide-eyed folks eager to travel on a budget. We cracked jokes and talked about music, getting to know each other if only for a nanosecond (a week, in Web years), then waved cheerily and moved on. ChatrouletteâÄôs uniqueness makes it hard to categorize. Journalists canâÄôt seem to figure out if itâÄôs the newest craze, an underground sensation or a non-phenomenon. Parents complain because they feel they should, though the danger is really no more grave than the Web itself (learn to use the âÄúblockâÄù feature). Others think it simply a logical next step in a virtual world which has meandered from text-based chat rooms to IM to Livejournal, blogs, Facebook and Skype. âÄúI am not even sure what Chatroulette is now,âÄù said Andrey Ternovskiy, creator of Chatroulette, to The New York Times, adding that he originally created it to talk with his friends. Is it free travel? Porn? Another weird Web tool? Yes. But if nothing else, Chatroulette is good, plain fun. Jenna H. Beyer welcomes comments at [email protected].