In the past couple months, a new fad has been creeping into the social lives of St. Thomas students. While the idea of using a Webcam to talk to friends seems ancient now, Chatroulette.com decided to kick things up a notch by posing a simple concept: why talk to friends when you can talk to strangers?
The idea seems innocent enough-use the Web site to semi-anonymously video and text chat with random people. They can see you, you can see them.
It wasn’t until I heard from friends about how going to the site might have changed their lives, mostly for the worse, that I decided it was finally time for me to check things out.
Having no Webcam, I enlisted the help of some of my roommates: Nate (the shy guy), Andrew (never one to shy away from attention) and Brandon (though he’d never admit it, he was mildly enthused that I roped him into this). Having established a well-rounded group of characters to ensure strangers that I wasn’t a creeper, we nervously embarked on our very first Chatroulette journey.
Our first stranger
Defying the odds, the very first person we were connected with was an attractive blonde girl. Though that may come off as a bit blunt, it’s a well-known fact that girls on Chatroulette are a slim commodity and when running into one it’s common practice to do anything in your power to sustain conversation with her for no other reason than to tell your friends you did.
My roommates and I marveled at the odds and were in the midst of coming up with a clever opening line when she “nexted” us, disappearing into Internet oblivion. Clearly Chatroulette is a cold, cruel realm.
Still in awe of running into a girl so early in our experiment, we hit the “next” button filled with youthful exuberance. Our next strangers were two dudes sitting in what looked like a dorm room. So we quickly blurted out any phrases we could come up with dealing with college. I came up with what I thought was an ever-so-clever quip of “I remember the first time I went to college,” while someone behind me quoted lines from Asher Roth’s annoyingly catchy college anthem “I Love College.”
It was immediately clear that these “bros,” as we called them, didn’t find us as funny as we found ourselves.
After a quick “We’re in high school!” followed by a plethora of profanities, they were off. Then and there, we decided being jerks for no reason wasn’t the right way to go. We inducted a certain code of ethics, at least initially, that we were going to be the nice guys of the net, greeting people with waves and smiles rather than the often popular angry slurs and flipping of birds.
Getting “nexted” hurts more than you think
With our new dedication to better Web manners, we were off. But while the smiles and waves seemed like a good idea, no one else seemed to be picking up on our charm. It was an endlessly hurtful cycle of people skipping us before we could squeeze a word in or at the very least “next” them first.
We tried different approaches, with each roommate being at the center of our posse. We tried having one person sit at the computer and all of us popping out behind him. We tried all of us popping on the screen at the same time. No luck. The closest we got to human contact was the myriad of people exposing themselves to us (another common fact of Chatroulette is that if you’re not acquainted with male anatomy, you will be by the time you’re done).
After a while, all of our self-esteems took noticeable hits. Even though they were strangers who I’d never see again most likely, the fact that they judged me enough in a tenth of a second to know that they didn’t want to even say “hi” to me was a painful concept to grasp. Our coping mechanism became to “next” people first. So we came up with another system.
We decided that anyone sitting by themselves was getting “nexted”, anyone we thought looked creepy was getting “nexted” and if you had a mask on, we’d stare and laugh but probably avoid any real conversation. Once we employed this strategy, things actually went pretty well.
A disturbing series of event
This was by far the most disturbing thing that we came across on our adventures. We broke our rule of immediately “nexting” people who were laying in bed by themselves, and we paid for it. For some reason, we stopped for more than a few seconds on a guy sitting alone in bed kind of just staring at us. He then asks if we want to see him cut himself.
We thought it was a joke so we all skeptically said “yes,” assuming he was about to pull a prank of some sort on us. Wrong.
Instead, he shows us an arm already equipped with six scars and begins to cut his arm. We scream, he smiles, and I was on the verge of throwing up. And then he asked if we wanted to see more. Needless to say, we respectfully declined and went on our way.
After recovering, we met a girl from London who wasn’t afraid to pressure my roommates, who had a few beers by this time, into drinking every time she told them to. Apparently people from London can be quite sadistic when it comes to drinking games because if she had her wish, my roommates would have drank themselves into a coma. Nice girl though.
Next we came across a young gentleman from Kazakhstan. He spoke serviceable English but didn’t laugh when we quoted lines from Borat. He was met with a swift “next.”
Our trip around the globe continued (kind of) when we met two girls who went to school in Texas, but one of them happened to be from Russia. This chance meeting was important because it was the first time that we decided not to lie about where we were from. Normally if anyone asked where we lived, someone would blurt out a lie without thinking. For some reason, these girls were friendly and disarming enough to actually get us to open up. This is where the innocent appeal of Chatroulette was finally relayed to me.
Yes, it’s entertaining to go on the Internet and mess with people, but at the heart of its existence, this Chatroulette is a way for a people to take themselves out of the Internet’s numbing anonymity and plunge into the sometimes awkward, yet sometimes rewarding, realm of meeting new people. While the amount of disturbing things on the internet is utterly endless, and make no mistake that this site can be overwhelming when it comes to the bizarre, Chatroulette is surprisingly effective at helping the people who use it meet new people and expand their own comfort zone. And that‘s a chance I think people should be willing try.
Ben Katzner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.