Think of the history of online chat as you would the arc of a young American’s life. When Chat was 8, it began sorting through its parents’ record collections, finding bands and movies it enjoyed, aggressively asserting its identity. At 9, it began passing secret notes in school. After an awkward adolescence, it grew into its body at 15, tried out for debate club, and developed a loyalty to its friends. A year or two later it started missing curfew and smelling funny, and after it was caught at the wrong kind of party and had its car privileges revoked, Chat cut its hair, ironed its clothes, and got accepted at a competitive college. After a transitional freshman year, it now calls its parents every weekend.
Firefly, AOL IM, Friendster, MySpace, Facebook, Skype. If online chat was officially born in 1988, Chatroulette arrives while it’s looking for its first apartment, barely old enough to drink.
Per the Web site itself, Chatroulette is a “brand new service for one-on-one text-, webcam-, and microphone-based chat with people around the world.” Its austere design contains a single chat box and two fist-size webcam boxes — one for you, one for them. A click of the play button brings up the message LOOKING FOR A RANDOM STRANGER. What you find next is anyone’s guess.
Whimsical? Yes. Easily corruptible? Sure. Surrealist playground? Why not? Nevertheless, in a world where distant friends spam your Facebook inbox with MafiaWars notices, Chatroulette’s unmediated platform might save us from our own monsters. It relies on an intelligence the online community hasn’t used since grade school.
Collaborative filtering has been the dominant networking concept in the Internet landscape since the mid-’90s, when many middle-class US households first vacuumed out their dens and fashioned them into “computer rooms.” It relies on a simple logic: that the Web is a Neronian coliseum of indigestible information without a built-in compass, one constructed from rational personal interests. After personal interests came user accountability, user-generated content, and ultimately, what we have today: relentless real-time documentation. Virtually all online interaction hinges on one of two assumptions: that you’re organized by a common interest, or you’re already part of a real-world social framework.
What Chatroulette does, remarkably, is ignore this concept. In practical terms, this isn’t learning to brush your teeth with the opposite hand; it’s brushing them with your friend’s foot. For as much as the Internet has accomplished in its 20-plus years, the “stranger’s face,” someone who sees you at the same time you see them, has been the exclusive domain of real-world interactions.
Chatroulette contains no organizational filters, no fee, no common threads (the notable exception being requisite access to a computer), and no names or addresses. It might be the Web’s first purely democratic medium, free (for now, at least) from advertisements, where people can theoretically “meet” and “converse” with someone well outside the grids that construct our normal social lives. No unseen market forces are at work, “guiding you” by steering your Webcam to some nearby Pilates instructor. If someone creeps you out, skip ’em. Perhaps best of all, you’re relieved of the occasionally stifling accountability of Facebook, which feels increasingly like a high-school yearbook committee meeting that never ends.