Chatroulette is The Innertubes Greatest Hope

By Laura Casey
Contra Costa Times

03/12/2010 01:00:00 PM PST

IN LESS THAN an hour I met Tyquan, a 23-year-old military-trained security guard from Brooklyn and 26-year-old Emmy from New Orleans, who showed me her belly dance moves. Mike, a 16-year-old from Texas, wanted to chat with me about college and my job while Lyon, 70, from France just wanted to say “hi.”

I wasn’t in New York’s Times Square yakking with everyone who walked by. I was on Chatroulette, an Internet-based game connecting strangers via Webcam. This free and simple Web site is arguably the hottest commodity on the Internet today. It’s certainly one of the most talked about by both the media and parents groups, the latter of which issue warnings about sexual predators and the site’s possible harmful effects on children.

I am intrigued by communication. And I admit I am hooked, confused, bewildered and a little queasy, thanks to Chatroulette.

Reportedly developed by 17-year-old Russian truant Andrey Ternovskiy, some experts figure more than 1.5 million people around the world use the program every day. It’s simple. You sit in front of your computer and go to the Web site, www.chatroulette.com. The program will ask for access to your Webcam, and your image will pop up on the screen. After hitting “play,” the program finds you someone to chat with.

It is pure, uncensored, un-moderated video chat. And, as the name suggests, it’s a random game. You have the opportunity to stop the chat any moment and move on to the next person as does your partner.

In the end, you basically gamble with who you might connect to and what you might see. You could, as I did, run into some really interesting people — artists, students, military personnel — or you can be exposed to live pornographic images, which I saw as well.

When Oakland technophile Candace Locklear started hearing the growing buzz around Chatroulette on Twitter, she had to check it out. During her first five-minute session two weeks ago, she connected with 50 people for just mere seconds of time. The experience “freaked me out so much I had to get off it and take a break.”

She soon dove back in and connected with a young lady from Canada.

“It was nice to have a spontaneous back and forth with somebody,” she says. “It was just connecting and looking at one another.”

But what did these connections to random strangers through the Internet mean? Were they lasting?

“That’s not the point. That’s not what you’re looking for,” she says. “It’s visual cruising.”

Alex Leavitt, lead researcher for the Web Ecology Project and a tech research specialist at MIT agrees with Locklear — Chatroulette, which launched in November 2009, is not for social networking or making any lasting connections like Twitter or Facebook.

“For social media experts, I doubt that Chatroulette is important at all,” he says. “It’s novel and intriguing, but there’s little there for them to use as business models.”

Instead, it’s almost anti-community-building. It’s quick and minimalist which, Leavitt says, could be a platform for “interesting things.”

Certainly. My connections were more interesting than watching “Friends” reruns on television. I liken the program to flipping channels on a TV, though what you’re seeing is real, unfiltered and interactive.

And for someone like me, an adult who can easily click through people looking for sex without it phasing me that much, Chatroulette is exciting and illuminating. I rarely have conversations with teens or 20-somethings and, although I find myself wanting to give them practical advice, it’s nice to chat with a younger set of people than my normal brood.

Chatroulette worries me a bit, though. It’s such a simple program that anyone even somewhat Internet savvy can use it. The site states that use is limited to those 16 and older, but no one is checking IDs at the door. Exposure to sex is inevitable, and many moral questions are raised.

Calling Chatroulette a “den of pedophiles,” Doug Fowler, president of Internet monitoring software company SpectorSoft, says Chatroulette is not only one of the most dangerous sites on the Internet for kids, but also a site that will “explode” in the coming weeks or months.

He says he’s concerned that children will be exposed to nudity or sexual behavior, or even expose themselves, thinking chats are private. They are not.

“We always caution them to be careful about what they put up there, it really is for the world to see,” Fowler says.

He suggests either blocking the site from teen use or using a monitoring software, if not totally monitoring computer use at all times.

Despite this danger, I, like many of the people I’ve talked to over recent days about Chatroulette, hope that parents will monitor their children rather than try to kill the site altogether, which is a real concern expressed by experts. And Locklear and I agree that the basic functions of Chatroulette, Webcam connections, should be even more ubiquitous on other Web sites where you can choose who you are talking to.

“It can be a real utility,” she says. “How cool would it be to talk to the person who crocheted the thing on (Internet craft store) Etsy? Why don’t you have a ‘click the video’ icon (on Facebook) and see the guy you kissed in high school?”

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