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The Thermodynamic Theory of ChatRoulette

by Leigh Shulman Feb 25, 2010
Yesterday, our very own Candice Walsh took us on a tour of the sordid, silly and surreal world of ChatRoulette. Today, I ask where will this latest fascination take us?

What is the allure of ChatRoulette?

It is a challenge to find the weirdest, most interesting, most sexually odd stranger. It is anonymity. When you don’t have a name, you can say what you like and not take responsibility. That is extremely liberating.

It is human contact. It is human contact with absolutely no strings attached. We all wonder what it would be like with a stranger. It is a chance to see a naked stranger possibly shirtless and masturbating..

It is a search for the self. Deep down, how many of us hope that we’ll find our doppelgangersoulmateselfstranger?

Every article I read about ChatRoulette discusses in detail the rejection, more than one describing the “horrifying” moment of watching your stranger reach a hand out to the keyboard before F9ing you.

It is as the name suggests, an opportunity to shoot yourself in the head with every flip of the keyboard. Yet, every single person went back more than once to this place where you can be anyone. A cat. A whore. A samurai. A complete and utter pervert. You can travel to Turkey or have a drink with a stranger in Amsterdam even if you’re under 21 and couldn’t get into the bar in real life. You can play “Make this face” or “Hey, I’ll draw you!” Then settle down for a chat with a nazi, ghost, skeleton or dog. Real dog, not just someone dressed up as one.

Only your imagination limits you.

Is ChatRoulette the So-Called Next Big Thing?

It could be.

Sam Anderson tells us in his New York Magazine article that “if ChatRoulette catches on, it might even swing our collective online pendulum back toward chaos.”

A little bit of chaos may be just what the techgeek ordered in this overly monitored and measured world. Who are we kidding? This isn’t just for techgeeks. Everyone occasionally seeks escape from the self to find adventure. That’s why we travel. That’s why we jump out of planes. That’s why hostel sex is fun, then you get up the next day and are on your way. Chatroulette provides just a small taste of letting go before you return to your normal life.

Says Jonah Lehrer at ScienceBlogs

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.

Many don’t get it, though. Just like people didn’t get online dating, then Facebook, then Twitter. They didn’t get it. They didn’t get it. And then suddenly, everyone realized they had to get it because if they didn’t, they’d be left behind.

I keep hearing metaphors for what ChatRoulette is like. Speed dating, urban subway ride on your computer, slot machine made of other people. This revolving door of metaphor is part of the not getting it. We’re all trying to get our heads around it. We want to understand what it is and what it means about us but don’t quite know yet.

Here’s a tip. If you hear a large group of people saying something like “I don’t get it. What’s it for?” you’re probably onto something.

What does the future hold for ChatRoulette?

The future of ChatRoulette will be guided by two things. Will it be monetized? Will it remain anonymous?

Andrey Ternevskiy, the 17 year old creator of ChatRoulette, provides some insight on monetization in an interview with Brad Stone in the New York Times Bits blog.

I think it’s wonderful that I do not have to put a lot of advertisements on my site to keep it running. I am not sure why it is so. Maybe because Google AdSense (the thing I use to show the advertisements) shows links to various video chats. I don’t think this is a bad thing. I actually think it is a good thing, because only people not interested or tired of using my site click those links, to explore other services.

How’s that for pure sentiment in our post modern, advertising media savvy days?

But can ChatRoulette remain alive with such minimal monetization? The ability to make a living doing something you love, be that travel blogging or coding anonymous chat websites, is hugely alluring. If Mr. Ternevskiy doesn’t do it, it’s inevitable that someone else will come along to fill the void.

The Case For Giving Up Anonymity

While the ability to say and do what you want with no strings attached is a beautiful thing, if you don’t know what someone wants, where they live and what they need, it is extremely difficult to market to them, thus making ChatRoulette into a business rather complicated.

Again, Sam Anderson nicely sums up the possibilities:

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.

The ability to keep stats strips away anonymity. Without it, ChatRoulette becomes a different animal but one with a world of possibility.

“Like what?” you may ask.

Professional or pop, you can log into a room looking for someone who will listen to your problems and hear you vent. Choose between Freudian, cognitive behavioral, gestalt and eclectic flavors. If you like the person you meet, you can arrange to meet again.

Here you can play chess, connect with a World of Warcraft buddy or even an entire group for mahjong or bridge. No, I don’t suddenly see a market for college mahjong tournaments, but it sets the stage for older users as well.

Tired of your child sitting slack jawed and wide eyed while watching the same video over and over and over. Here you can connect with a real person who will occupy your child.

For an fantastic vision of what computer babysitting and education could be, read Neal Stephenson’s The Diamond Age: A Lady’s Illustrated Primer. (Definitely up there as one of my favorite sci-fi books of all time). We can require sitters to register and login with work history, favorite games, and even police record.

Online Dating.
It doesn’t take much thought to see how ChatRoulette adds another dimension to online dating. Instead of e-mailing for a week, you immediately connect, see if there’s attraction before wasting time with an awkward, man-you-seemed-cool-but-in-real-life-you’re-a-lot-doughier-than-I-expected night on the town.

Art and Entertainment.
Flip between live shows, plays, improv, comedy, and it’s all there just for you, the audience of one or however many happen to be in front of your monitor at the moment. The longer the audience stays with a program, the higher the rating. Highly rated shows, as in any other system, get advertising.

Need an answer to a question? Connect with experts from all over the world on any number of subjects.

Parental Control
Right now, no one monitors you as you wheel through a world of strangers, but what happens the day some 12 year old logs on to watch two naked men in leather beating a third while a fourth jerks off in a corner. Suddenly, lack of responsibility doesn’t seem so funny anymore. And like Google executives who have recently been convicted of privacy violations because of a video uploaded to YouTube of an autistic boy being bullied, someone will be held accountable.

Any of these fit easily into many different potential business models, but once this happens, once we’ve begun to quantify, qualify and find ways to monetize as is natural in the course of internet entropy, we lose the spontaneity and freedom that currently makes ChatRoulette so damn appealing.

Maybe for now, we can relax and just enjoy this little slice of painful, horrifying, rejection with a side of titillation. There’s plenty of time to put order in the chaos.


What do you see as the future of ChatRoulette and other live video chat feeds?

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