The XX Factor

Who’s Afraid of ChatRoulette?

In the last issue of New York magazine, Sam Anderson takes an incisive look at ChatRoulette , an increasingly popular Web site that links two strangers by random chance to a one-on-one video chat on a simple interface. There’s no sign-up- you go to the site , click “Play,” and within seconds you’re connected with a stranger. You can stay and chat, or click “Next” and up comes another stranger. The objective, at once simple and wholly fascinating: a bottomless barrel of no-repeat interactions with random, potentially entertaining oddballs. The not-surprising news, though, is that chatters see an unfortunate amount of man-with-penis-in-hand during chats. (Instant video-conferencing with no “back” button is a pervert’s dream, for obvious reasons). Just yesterday Mindy Kaling tweeted, ” Chat Roulette is horrifying. We just used it in our writers room. It was naked guys or guys in Jigsaw masks.” And a pervert’s wet dream is a parent’s nightmare. The New York Times tech blog warned last week : “Parents, keep your children, far, far, away.”

The jury’s still out on whether the ChatRoulette has real staying power. Most everyone who’s written about it so far has expressed some degree of repulsion. (Among the descriptors used in various reviews: nauseating, repulsive, socially depraved.) And Omegle , a random chat site that essentially works just like ChatRoulette sans video, garnered a fair amount of attention last year when it launched and has now nearly faded from the spotlight entirely. I was intrigued by Anderson’s vision of a more controlled, but still random version of ChatRoulette:

I found myself fantasizing about a curated version of ChatRoulette-powered maybe by Google’s massive server farms-that would allow users to set all kinds of filters: age, interest, language, location. One afternoon I might choose to be thrown randomly into a pool of English-speaking thirtysomething non-masturbators who like to read poetry. Another night I might want to talk to Jets fans. Another night I might want to just strip away all the filters and see what happens. The site could even keep stats, like YouTube, so you could see the most popular chatters in any given demographic. I could get very happily addicted to a site like that.

I have a hard time, though, believing that random video-chat will ever move that far past the “Flash your tits!” imperative.