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.)