What if you could fire up your webcam and videochat with total strangers all over the world — in complete anonymity. What would you do? What would you say?
ChatRoulette is an internet sensation that is … let’s put it kindly … a bit rough around its edges.
According to a NY Times report, the site is the invention of Andrey Ternovskiy, a 17-year-old high school student in Russia who said he started it for “fun” and to bring people from different cultures together. Registered only last November, it drew one-million unique visitors in January, according to comScore as reported by the Associated Press. After the site’s viral explosion and initial press coverage, expect February’s numbers to be significantly higher.
Ternovskiy told the Times:
“It wasn’t so easy to create it for me, but I have been coding since 11 … I didn’t advertise my site or post it anywhere, but somehow, people started to talk to each other about the site. And the word started to spread.”
He said he had seven servers in Frankfurt, Germany, and would likely add more elsewhere.
“Each time the user count grew, I had to rewrite my code completely, because my software and hardware couldn’t handle it all. I never thought that handling the heavy user load would be the most difficult part of my project.”
Lots of participants, in their search for international camaraderie, are baring more than their souls. On YouTube, you’ll find several hundred videos made from Chatroulette exchanges; some are quite graphic.
“One minute you’re chatting via webcam with a mom of two from Montauk, NY — and the next you’re staring at a stark-naked man in Bangkok,” reports Fox News.
Here are a couple of YouTube videos that are arguably acceptable for family viewing.
In the first video, your hostess is clearly holding back.
Caution: The next video will begin with loud audio.
“Darwin with Chat Roulette,” which ranked number one in traffic with about 520,000 YouTube views in two months, seems certain to be overtaken very soon by “Eye Vagina” — which does exactly that. “Eye Vagina” is number two in traffic after just one week, with 440,000 views.
There’s a site — ChatRoulette Images — that’s offering a bounty for the best screen grabs. So far, most (but not all) of the images posted here are harmless nonsense.
Pornography has been part of the internet from Day One; it was the Web’s first big money-maker — and it’s still there, as parodied on South Park (link here). What ChatRoulette’s done is open a new channel within a child- and teenage-targeted social media steam.
You “pull the trigger,” so to speak, and breathe a sigh of relief when the bullet doesn’t come. Or if it does come, it arrives so quickly that you don’t have a chance to comprehend what’s happening until it’s already over.
Chatroulette is exactly like this, except with penises.
A TV report from Houston (video embedded) said yesterday that “at the heart of it, the Website was not made to be dangerous, but because of its simple nature, it allows kids to easily turn on their webcam and quickly talk to strangers.
“Those who have used ChatRoulette say a majority of the webcams contain obscene images, including nudity and sexual activity [and] many parental groups say kids should not be on ChatRoulette at all,” MyFoxHouston reported.
School psychologist Ann Suchyna told News4 in Buffalo (video embedded) that “it’s really quite disturbing to watch this … What they once thought might be inappropriate or deviant becomes, well, maybe this is more normal than I thought.”
From the News4 report:
“I think it’s a great tool. It has some great capabilities. But unfortunately, there’s a dark side to it,” said Chief Scott Patronik, of the Erie County Sheriff’s Office.
Within minutes of logging on, the dark side popped up on the screen. A man, with the camera pointed only at his crotch, was exposing himself.
“There’s no restraint [the News4 producer adds]. These people are showing no restraint. Nothing is stopping them from doing this … This whole thing is really creepy.”
Last night, there was a ChatRoulette party at the Union Hall in Brooklyn, New York magazine reports. (Union Hall, in the pretentiously hip, child-friendly Park Slope neighborhood, caught all sorts of hell a couple of years ago when it banned children after 5 pm.)
It’s not inconceivable that young Ternovskiy’s purported ambition to engender international goodwill may yet be redeemed — he’s reportedly heading to the United States to raise funds for his site, and new backers may add a layer of professional management t0 clean up this mess.
Don’t count on it.
Meanwhile, keep an eye of your children — and on their computers.
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UPDATE: What should be a pretty obvious side peril of ChatRoulette is the danger of site visitors being photographed, and having their photos distributed to millions across the internet. As seen in some of the links above and below, photographing visitors and broadcasting their silliness is part of the ChatRoulette experience. Curiosity seekers who choose to give ChatRoulette a run might end up with more fun than they bargained for — another reminder that nothing we do on the internet … especially on a social media site … is truly anonymous.
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How to block Chatroulette on your [Windows] PC (TechNews Daily)
ChatRoulette, by the numbers (Wall Street Journal blog)
ChatRoulette: Beware of Danger. New spin on an old game. (Psychology Today)
The surreal world of ChatRoulette (NY Times)
ChatRoulette, a dangerous Website for kids and adults alike (Examiner.com)