I spent last night with a bunch of total strangers.
After reading about Chatroulette in Time magazine, I was curious. It's new tech, so I had to check it out. Little did I know that it would scratch a voyeuristic itch that I didn’t even know that I had.
Chatroulette is a simple concept. Logging on to the website enables you to see through the web cam of any one of the 20,000 other people who are also logged in, and they in turn are looking through yours. It is all completely anonymous. No personal information is given. All you know about the person is what you can see through the small window on the screen. At any time, either person can press a button and jump a different random person and once you do there is no way to return to the pervious webcam.
Although you can see and hear each other, there is very little chatting going on. Most of the interactions are slient and last less than a second before somebody presses the “next” button and disappears. During the time I spent on the site, I came face to face with dozens of different people from all over the world. Most of the time, it was a singular guy (some of whom I could tell were disappointed that I was not a hot chick), but there were also women and various groups of people huddled around their webcams.
Sometimes interesting and unexpected things showed up on the screen. One person had their camera focused solely on the neck of their guitar as they sat there and played music. Another had the camera trained on a glass bong. Sometimes the camera showed an empty room. This being the internet, there were also some naked people, One large woman wore nothing but a bustier. One couple was having sex in front of the camera. The creep factor was also high and every so often a guy playing with himself would appear on the screen. These images were fleeting and easily erased with the click of a button. Most of the time, however, it was just regular people staring at each other.
Gazing at these strangers reminded me of the distinct feeling of being a teenager at a party, looking at a girl across the room. As soon as her gaze met mine, I would shyly turn away even though making eye contact with her was my goal. Although we were all logged into a site with the singular purpose of looking at each other, the majority of the time either the stranger or I would press the “next” button as soon as our eyes connected.
The “next” button gets pressed quite a lot and each time that it is, the program gives the same message as it loads up the next camera feed, “Looking for a random stranger…”
You never know what would appear on the screen each time the button is clicked. I began to imagine a Hitchcockian scenario that had me clicking to the next person, inadvertently witnessing some crime being committed and soon finding myself on the run for having seen too much. (The eventual movie that follows would inevitably star Shia LeBouf.) But that never happened.
My collective experience on Chatroulette was made up of micro-moments. There were a few times when a brief connection was made. One person complimented me on my beard before clicking away. Another told me I looked creepy and I managed to return the sentiment before I pressed the button. One guy said, “I’m looking for Jessica Alba” before nexting me. At one point I kept my camera on when I had to leave the room and I returned to find a woman staring closely at her screen, curiously trying to identify the objects on my bookshelf that she could see through my camera. As soon as I poked my head back into the shot, she was gone.
“Looking for a random stranger…”
There was a guy wearing a Boba Fett helmet, some college guys playing video games, a couple of Japanese guys in an office cubicle, two girls drinking wine, a person with cat on their head, a dude in an alien mask…
“Looking for a random stranger…”
Chatroulette is a strange experience--thousands of strangers all signed on to a website, mutually spying on each other, giving each other permission to sneak glimpses of our lives. We simultaneously become the voyeur and the object. It's surreal. The moments between these strangers were fleeting, but never boring. It is completely hypnotic.