The Frontal Cortex

ChatRoulette

Sam Anderson, in New York Magazine, takes on ChatRoulette, that strange new site that connects you, via webcam, with a stream of strangers:

The site was only a few months old, but its population was beginning to explode in a way that suggested serious viral potential: 300 users in December had grown to 10,000 by the beginning of February. Although big media outlets had yet to cover it, smallish blogs were full of huzzahs. The blog Asylum called ChatRoulette its favorite site since YouTube; another, The Frisky, called it “the Holy Grail of all Internet fun.” Everyone seemed to agree that it was intensely addictive–one of those gloriously simple ideas that manages to harness the crazy power of the Internet in a potentially revolutionary way.

The site activates your webcam automatically; when you click “start” you’re suddenly staring at another human on your screen and they’re staring back at you, at which point you can either choose to chat (via text or voice) or just click “next,” instantly calling up someone else. The result is surreal on many levels. Early ChatRoulette users traded anecdotes on comment boards with the eerie intensity of shipwreck survivors, both excited and freaked out by what they’d seen. There was a man who wore a deer head and opened every conversation with “What up DOE!?” A guy from Sweden was reportedly speed-drawing strangers’ portraits. Someone with a guitar was improvising songs for anyone who’d give him a topic. One man popped up on people’s screens in the act of fornicating with a head of lettuce. Others dressed like ninjas, tried to persuade women to expose themselves, and played spontaneous transcontinental games of Connect Four. Occasionally, people even made nonvirtual connections: One punk-music blogger met a group of people from Michigan who ended up driving eleven hours to crash at his house for a concert in New York. And then, of course, fairly often, there was this kind of thing: “I saw some hot chicks then all of a sudden there was a man with a glass in his butthole.” I sing the body electronic.

You can probably tell where this story is headed: ChatRoulette, of course, proves to be a profound disappointment. Anderson doesn’t meet the Whitmanesque masses, but is instead rejected by a slew of surly teenagers and online weirdos:

I entered the fray on a bright Wednesday afternoon, with an open mind and an eager soul, ready to sound my barbaric yawp through the webcams of the world. I left absolutely crushed. It turns out that ChatRoulette, in practice, is brutal. The first eighteen people who saw me disconnected immediately. They appeared, one by one, in a box at the top of my screen–a young Asian man, a high-school-age girl, a guy lying on his side in bed–and, every time, I’d feel a little flare of excitement. Every time, they’d leave without saying a word. Sometimes I could even watch them reach down, in horrifying real-time, and click “next.” It was devastating. My first even semi-successful interaction was with a guy with a blanket draped over his lap who asked if I wanted to “jack of” with him. I declined; he disconnected.

There are two things to say about ChatRoulette. The first is that it exploits a pretty fundamental reward mechanism in the brain, which we’ve known about since Pavlov: the power of random reinforcement. It turns out that predictable rewards get boring rather quickly, as the brain adapts to new stimuli. (Are you still excited about your Christmas presents? Exactly. You’ve been designed to be ungrateful.)

Human interaction, of course, is pretty damn predictable. We’ve got elaborate rituals for dealing with strangers, thus minimizing the chance of a surprising interaction. (“How are you?” “Good, thanks. How are you?” “Great. Thanks for asking. Have a nice day.”) And then there’s the fact that the vast majority of our interactions are with people we already know, whether it’s family, friends or co-workers. So they probably won’t surprise us, either. The end result is that our social exchanges become tedious and rote. They might be rewarding, but they’re rarely exciting.

And this is where ChatRoulette comes in. I’ve only played around on the site for a few minutes, but it seems to me that its allure is inseparable from its unpredictability. Will this new person be a masturbator or a friendly stranger? Will we be rejected or will we do the rejecting? It all reminds me of Vegas, where people are willing to endure big losses for the occasional thrill of a surprising gain. (According to the data of Wolfram Schultz, an unexpected reward generates a much larger dopaminergic signal in the brain.) Of course, those gamblers know they’re wasting time and money, but the possibility of an unexpected reward is simply too tantalizing. ChatRoulette takes this same logic to the social realm: at its core, it’s a slot machine made of other people.

The other thing to say about ChatRoulette is that it reminded me of an urban subway. Like a dense city, the website mixes together strangers, forcing them to stare at each other for a few fleeting seconds. This momentary mixing, while often unpleasant and awkward, turns out to be a crucial function of cities. Jane Jacobs, in her seminal work The Death and Life of Great American Cities, argued that every healthy city was defined by its ability to facilitate social interaction. She saw the busy sidewalk as an improvisational “ballet,” in which information freely flowed between city dwellers. Her book identified the specific urban ingredients⎯from short city blocks to mixed-use neighborhoods⎯that encouraged “the intricate mingling of diversity.”

Of course, most Americans don’t live in neighborhoods that Jacobs would endorse. We like our privacy and suburbs, which means that our cities look more like Phoenix than Manhattan. While this makes us more comfortable – I like my air-conditioned car as much as the next person – there’s some suggestive evidence that it also makes cities less innovative. A few years ago, I wrote about this PNAS paper, which analyzes vast amounts of data to figure out why some cities are so much more innovative than others:

While certain institutions can encourage innovation, the scientists are quick to point out that the innovative abilities of cities are ultimately rooted in the one thing that every city has in common: lots of human interaction. “Cities concentrate our social interactions,” Bettencourt says, “and that’s what leads to this explosion in knowledge creation and innovation.” Think of people as particles and the urban space as a container: as more and more particles enter the container (the population of the city is increasing), each particle increases its speed. The end result is that the particles are constantly colliding. According to the scientists, these random urban collisions are the source of innovation. Creativity spontaneously emerges from human friction.

ChatRoulette is an online version of the friction that cities produce for free. It’s like a subway ride on your computer, a chance to bump into strangers on the “street” without leaving your desk. Sure, there are lots of weirdos out there, and plenty of those strangers won’t stare back. But every once in a while, a meaningful interaction might occur, as the social slot machine dispenses a few quarters. I’d like to think that if Walt Whitman were around – and boy do I wish he were – he’d write a poem about ChatRoulette.

PS. I forgot to describe my own experience on ChatRoulette. I spent the first 20 minutes getting rejected, propositioned and yelled at. It was gross, crushing and so entertaining. Then I found a nice twentysomething male in Oslo who worked as a computer programmer. We talked for 5 minutes about the weather. It was a perfectly banal conversation, but in all my years riding the subway in NYC I can only remember a handful of spontaneous chats with my fellow riders. Of course, those same riders also didn’t ask me to take off my clothes. (As usual, the internet is just like real life, only more so.)

Comments

  1. #1 royniles
    February 8, 2010

    Do we then anticipate the unexpected to be safely within the range of the merely surprising?

  2. #2 Zoasterboy
    February 8, 2010

    Have your tried the random chat with a stranger site/iphone app Omegle? Identical in how it works, just no video. It really is addicting.

  3. #3 John S.
    February 8, 2010

    I think ChatRoulette is wonderful.

    Let me share a trick to end up with a nice conversation.

    If you’re a guy: don’t show your face (or body parts for that matter) but show something surprising, something weird, something that will prevent the other party from hitting F9 (‘next’).

    The first time I visited ChatRoulette I had the same experience as you. Wankers and girls hitting F9 in 20ms flat.

    The second time I pointed my camera towards a baby toy and as soon as someone connected, I made the toy look into the camera whilst making a weird noise.

    Just that brief unexpected image made people remove their fingers from the F9 button, and type a short message. Now it’s up to your language skills to turn this little ‘nibble’ into a full-fledged catch. I refer to it as ‘fishing’.

    After employing this strategy, I ended up having very nice, long conversations (20-30 mins) with random people, many of whom actually had some sort of gimmick as well. I’ve spoken to a girl who ran away from home and ended up telling me her life story after 5 mins, groups of Europeans, many South-Americans, etc etc. I’ve had people sing, dance, play the guitar, recite a poem, etc. Most disappear as quickly as you found them, some have ended up as ‘friends’ on my facebook.

    Note: I do second than Omegle, the text version, is easier, as no visual surprise is needed to start the conversation, and for your next research project, might I suggest tinychat (search for that keyword on twitter to find popular rooms).

  4. #4 teiana
    February 9, 2010

    I wonder if what we all really desire deep down is to be connected to ourselves. If, when we’re scanning these ‘random’ possible conversations, we are looking to be connected to two or three people who think and talk like we do, and understand us instantly. I wonder what the effects might be of an application that did just that. That created the effect of talking to yourself… Yes we love surprises, but, like christmas, the effect wears off. After that initial rush we are either driven to grab the next present, rip it open and throw it away, or, we sit, disapppointed that the rush has gone. The stuff that holds our longer interest is the familiar, those things that reinforce our own mental model of the world.

  5. #5 x6132003
    February 9, 2010

    Teiana,

    I have the same idea. I want to add to what you have said. When you find that person where you share ideas and you think alike the results are amazing. I know it sounds stupid, but it is true that 1+1=4 or 5 or 6.

    Tell me, do you know of any studies or sites that exploit this … not match.com or eHarmony … sites that are more platonic in nature.

  6. #6 Armands
    February 10, 2010

    My first experience was awful. Fifteen random men and then the Jonas brothers, geez.

    I’ve also develeoped a three-exhibitionist rule. As soon as I see the third one without pants, I quit for the day. Keeps me sane

  7. #7 Donna B.
    February 10, 2010

    The site sounds infinitely boring to me.

  8. #8 chatroulette
    February 11, 2010

    Chatroulettehall of fame.com

    Boob Hunting Guides, Pictures, Discussions, Videos Galleries and More!
    Check it out, Just Started and constantly growing

    Chatroulettehalloffame.com

    Also, Check out the missed encounters section, for those who you had long conversation with that ended with the next

  9. #9 Joseph
    February 12, 2010

    I wouldn’t be so quick to write off Chatroulette. On my first time on it, I ended up meeting a lovely girl two years my junior from New York (I’m from the UK myself), who it turns out I had a whole bunch in common with, from taste in music, to films and books. The chat ended up lasting for an hour and a half before, in fear of the service or internet suddenly dropping, she asked if we could exchange emails; apparently I was ‘really interesting’. I agreed as I’d had a blast talking to her, and we’ve since gone on to become really good friends. It’s funny how things just work out, I guess.

  10. #10 Robert Krulwich
    February 13, 2010

    Gosh, I’ve never heard of Chatroulette. What a slightly sad but also fascinating notion, that you can pop in on a random bunch of people, say hello, goodbye or maybe linger and there’s literally a globe’s worth of people in your waiting room. Neat. But also grim, like you’ve run through your options and now you have to visit the outliers.
    I keep thinking about the analogy to subway interactions. The key difference being: on the subway you spy, glance, overhear. On Chatroulette, apparently, you step out, you address people.
    Maybe that’s why people poke their computers and move from face to face to face, they would rather spy than talk. They want to gaze at a motley crew like you would on the subway.

  11. #11 janevalenz
    February 16, 2010

    I like the comparison between chatroulette and the urban subway setting. In my Organization of Information class for library school, the introduction had a sentence that made me sort of laugh and want to add to it… which I did in a facebook post:

    “The Internet has been likened to a library where all the books have been dumped on the floor and there is no catalog.” – The Organization of Information by Taylor and Joudrey

    I would like to add “… and where patrons have the manners and socialization of someone raised in a gas station bathroom.”

    Joking aside, sure you get your creepers in soiled trenchcoats with their hands in their pockets muttering unpleasant things at you, but at the same time, you get to look over other people’s shoulders and see what they’re reading or texting to others. We are naturally invading the space of others, whether intentionally or unintentionally and everyone is awkward at some point.

  12. #12 wikiwiki
    February 18, 2010

    I think you should understand that there are two kinds of masturbators in chatroulette, the exibitionists and those that do it to get some horny chicks to do things… interesting things.
    While I usually use chatroulette to, well chat, and i thought that wankers were very annoying, now i understand them. Yesterday i decided to be a masturbator, trying to understand their motivations. Well, I didnt show my dick to everyone, i kept it under my shirt and with my hand over it mooving slowly (i just lost my dignity :/ ).

    I swear, that roughly I got a horny chick each 20-25 mins, and each one lasted 10-15 mins (they werent gifs, i am not that gullible, and not blackscreens). Usually, you simply keep clicking next again and again. Then if you find a chick, DRESSED (if not they are gifs) simply await to their reaction. If they stay for some seconds, usually they will either start showing up their tits, or you will have to say them something like “wanna play?” then it starts…

    I got 4 girls to do this, one of them asian, and one somewhat fat :S.

    First it was a really hot girl, almost a model, and started by telling me to “take it out my love”, then showed tits, then showed her bare pussy, then fingered herself… i started to be suspicious, so i asked her to show me her ass. She did, and continued fingering. After a while she disconnected.

    Then it was an asian girl, she even showed me her face. After a while without doing nothing, she said: “cum for me”… she showed her tits, then her pussy, and after some masturbation she opened her pussy and say “cum inside me”… when i finished, she told me to show her the cum, and she got very near the camera and did some licking-like tongue movements. Then we said bye, and thats all.

    The other two werent that interesting…

    Conclusion: horny girls exist in chatroulette, and they are REAL (mostly at 3-6 AM GMT), but you must show something in exchange… however, i dont think i will ever repeat this, it is very embarrasing to show your dick even if covered tho hundreds of people…

    If someone doesnt believe this, well, try it… and remember to check if they are gifs!

  13. #13 Cynthia
    February 21, 2010

    I have to say I am quite glad I’ve had positive experiences on ChatRoulette.I’ve come across really decent people (6 guys!) who I’ve managed to sustain a one hour conversation with! (And yes,they spoke to my ceiling during the entire time.I think my sexy hands and plush toy= success)

  14. #14 Tag
    February 21, 2010

    Completely fun ==> http://bestofchatroulette.com
    Enjoy =)

  15. #15 dani010
    February 23, 2010

    4 guys with music behind the cam on chatroulette.
    Watch the reactions, hilarious.
    It’s a crazy world.
    Nice concept!!
    But a little to much wacko’s at the moment

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LCoQVSyhiCo

  16. #16 Kaede
    February 23, 2010

    I’m so loving this site. Have captured some truly great moments (from myself and others)- and posted them to http://www.chatrouletteLOLz.com

    I think they have a Lost and Found section to for those who got acci-nexted. :)

  17. #17 himhim
    February 23, 2010

    Funny Chatroulette parody on youtube. Check it out:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=elxohU9LBzk

  18. #18 Katherine Cohen
    February 24, 2010

    I talked to a kid for 2 whole hours on Chatroulette. He was only one year older and very nice. We had a blast laughing :D … It doesn’t take much to ignore the innapropiatness so w/e… now we are good friends and talk on facebook a lot. And any versions of this site in text versions, allow people to make a mistake and start talking with a 50 year old pervert.

  19. #19 mat
    February 24, 2010

    The other day i was googling this site caught my eye http://www.mynakedjob.com . As i explored the site i found out that this is a free web site which which allows people to find naked house cleaning girls in your city. This site is a good new for the girls, and women out there, because now any one who is 21+ who is not shy to remove there clothes can make from $50/hr to 250/hr. I think this site is one of the best sites that i have see so far in 2010 and http://www.chatroulette.com, http://www.mynakedjob.com.

  20. #20 Leigh Shulman
    February 25, 2010

    I love the metaphors you use for Chatroulette. And as someone who lived in NYC and rode the subway many times, I can see how the excitement of both will eventually wear off. After which, we either find another use for Chatroulette or it disappears.

    I recently wrote about this on Matador Network, using this article as one inspiration.

    http://matadorlife.com/the-thermodynamic-theory-of-chatroulette/

    Thanks for a different viewpoint, one that goes beyond the simple experiences of finding freakiness and rejection online. Not that I’m against that, but like I said, I lived in NYC for quite a while. I need a bit more than that too.

  21. #21 David
    February 28, 2010

    For some good CLEAN Chatroulette exhibitionism, visit http://showmeyourarmpit.blogspot.com/

    PS. reading “Proust Was A…” and loving it!

  22. #22 Dadapatate
    March 3, 2010

    I had fun using chatroulette! but i had even more fun using FaceBuzz, mostly because of their porn filter! They have other nice features! go have a look!

  23. #23 Jenny
    March 4, 2010

    I am obsessed with Chat Roulette. I sent in a picture to http://www.chatroulettevideos.com

  24. #24 Kouchy
    March 5, 2010

    I try http://www.bestofchatroulette.com/ and it’s very fun. It’s better than the original site because on chatroulette we always wait extraordinaries things and nothing apend. On Best of ChatRoulette it’s the contrary :D

  25. #25 greg zade
    March 7, 2010

    There is a multi-party version of chatroulette,
    which has been floating around for some time,
    called mebeam.

    It currently allows up to 3 random people to
    connect, in much the same fashion.

    http://www.mebeam.com/roulette.php

    gz

  26. #26 Blimko
    March 8, 2010

    Nosotros acabamos de lanzar un videochat aleatorio totalmente en español , con mejor diseño y más funcionalidades : http://www.blimko.com , de momento estamos en fase Beta, pero dentro de poco estará en varios idiomas y con un mayor número de funcionalidades.

    Saludos

  27. #27 philippe
    March 12, 2010

    we just made an addition to chatroulette, it’s a lost & found ressource. the folks who made this actually met on chatroulette. The site intends to be a tiny little second chance for all the lost souls who experience the screen freeze during a conversation and before being able to exchange contact information.

  28. #28 John
    March 18, 2010

    A very good new concept of chatroulette are here : http://www.roomroulette.com
    It’s chatroulette with 3 other strangers with cam on the same room. Do you know ?

  29. #29 Bigmo
    April 1, 2010

    I used Chatroulette and I kept getting booted for 40 minutes, I wasnt doing anything improper, I was jsut sitting and just sayin Hello , and ten minutes later a message popped up blocking me saying that 3 people did not like my content, I wasnt saying anything, i think this is bullshit, other than that the site is ok…

  30. #30 Micki
    April 19, 2010

    I love Chatroulette…have met some really interesting people. Last Night I met Rob…Rob, if you are reading this, the computer bumped me off! I would like to re-connect with you. That is the only thing I don’t like about this site…you can’t ever find the person you were talking to. It’s unfortunate.

    Rob…my Red Ford Truck is waiting…mud flaps and all! LOL!

    Micki

  31. #31 cultwatch87
    April 22, 2010

    As much as I like the web site I hate it for the fact that people with no intelectual abilitys can get on and spread there stupididty.

  32. #32 ronald
    May 3, 2010

    Chat with Stranger on search : Allow facebook user to search another
    user for 1 to 1 communication through webcam,microphone and text more
    than Chatroulette
    http://apps.facebook.com/randchat-e/

  33. #33 Stranger
    August 22, 2010

    I met about 8 guys, all had an interesting background, Americans and Europeans for the most part.

    But the last guy I met was amazing. I think I found my soulmate. I love to say “Thank you, Chatroulette”

  34. #34 chatroulette
    September 6, 2010

    nice! but remember:
    you do not NEXT Chuck Norris!
    it is Chuck Norris who NEXT you!

  35. #35 bradleyrls
    September 14, 2010

    Chatroulette will be fun and safe again soon.
    http://www.chatshock.com has some good articles and fun stuff for random video chat

  36. #36 jamel sassi
    November 11, 2010

    chatshock

  37. #37 chatroulette ita
    November 22, 2010

    Well… It is dissapointing in some cases BUT it is trully amazing as well.

  38. #38 Ash09
    November 25, 2010

    I also met a guy on Chatroulette back in March 2010. It’s now November and we still talk. We exchanged msn, skype, and facebook. He’s a really nice guy. Oh and I am from the U.S and he’s from Germany. We talked almost everyday for like 5 months, and then work and school got in the way for both of us, he’s a year older than me too. I’m going to Germany for three months in May 2011 to be an au pair, and he also happens to be 20 minutes away from my Host families home. How crazy is that? We will definitely be hanging out. I also know a few of his friends, and I have sent letters and a care package to this guy also. His mom already likes me too haha. It’s crazy how some things work out!

  39. #39 Jean
    December 26, 2010

    I found another service at http://www.jemga.com that I’ve been using – not too many creeps there yet. They also have a facebook app at http://apps.facebook.com/jemga-chat/

    Apparently they have a chat moderation system coming that’ll tone down the not so wanted chatters ;-)

  40. #40 Eric Jones
    December 29, 2010

    Love the blog, but a lot of your links seem to lead to dead pages.

  41. #41 chatroulette
    February 11, 2011

    Hello, en primer lugar decir que probe varios chatroulettes, por el momento el que mas me gusta es chat.ligotea.com sin duda alguna el mejor, espero les guste.

  42. #42 wie novoline knacken
    March 3, 2011

    Grundsätzlich betrachtet ne super Sache, ich überlege mir nur, ob das auch langfristig realistisch umsetzbar bleibt.

  43. #43 chatroulette
    March 22, 2011

    His mom already likes me too haha. It’s crazy how some things work out!

  44. #44 chatroulette
    April 20, 2011

    Adminim chatroulette aramasında google.com’da 1. sayfadan 2. sayfaya düştük :( bu yüzden bir şey rica edicem.Linki onaylarsanız sevinirim.Bari bir türk sitesi daha 1. sayfada olsun katkıda bulunun.Saygılarımla.Cömertliğinize güveniyorum.

  45. #45 lead generation
    June 21, 2011

    Guys you are more a rancid brat than Justin Bieber. Bieber is a unique celebrity that understands the demands and goosey desires of his fans and he grants them with utmost care from his heart. He has been generous to his fans worldwide. One incident of declining to sign an autogrph hardly qualifies as a brat. There are appropriate impulsive places, times, and people to seek autograph, one of those should NOT be while one is walking a narrow gate on his way to board a plane which is both time and security sensitive, and one of those shuld NOT be from an employee of an airport or airline – he should know better, was he there to work or go gaga over a celebrity. I understand Justin was once scolded during his Qantas flight for not getting into his seat quick enough. Don’t create drama in Manila when there is none, whenever a foreign celebrity visits.

  46. #46 Marta Kaminaka
    August 8, 2011

    Gary Speed also deserves a mention for what he brought to the team, he was a proper pro something weve lacked for some time in the side.

  47. #47 Nice
    August 17, 2011

    Great article

  48. #48 ariane123
    August 30, 2011

    Hello everyone and long live the new x chatroulette that his party’s top 5 and http://www.camxzap.com chatxroulette.com

  49. #49 Chatroulette francais
    September 4, 2011

    The moderation is a big problem on chatroulette but they try to figure something out.

  50. #50 camzap roulette
    September 18, 2011

    I love chatroulette but got banned from there recently. It sucks so bad but instead been using a few of these. Thanks

  51. #51 Deon Medlock
    November 30, 2011

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  52. #52 Alfonso Slowinski
    December 2, 2011

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  53. #53 Lesley Thurstonson
    December 4, 2011

    Ohh amazing place like it so much!