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Published: Saturday, 3/6/2010

‘ChatRoulette' puts new spin on social sites

FROM BLADE STAFF AND NEWS REPORTS

Trollers of the Internet, you have been looking for the next big thing. Facebook bores you. Twitter is too frenetic. You have been wanting something different — a way to connect with people online that will both stir your heart and turn your stomach, that will launch a thousand privacy debates and discussions over just what our society is coming to.

The good news is that this thing has arrived. The bad news is that you may have already missed the best of it.

We are talking about ChatRoulette.com, a webcam-linking social network based on the theory that profound human connection happens by the luck of the draw. Log on, click “Play,” and you are immediately matched with another anonymous chatter from somewhere on the globe, watching them as they watch you. Intrigued? Strike up a conversation. Not? Click “Next,” and connect with someone else.

“ChatRoulette seems to be sort of the Internet version of having the nerve to strike up a conversation with somebody on the plane or waiting at the [Bureau of Motor Vehicles],” said Montana Miller, assistant professor of popular culture at Bowling Green State University.

Except the rules are slightly different.

“It's not OK to strike up a conversation with someone in the real world and then just walk away,” she said.

The experience of ChatRoulette is either an unbridled realization of the Internet's awesome randomness, or a reminder of just how disturbing it can be. A four-hour initial visit to the site yields a singalong in Spain and a conversation about prescription drugs with a Saudi Arabian pharmacist. After this global tour, a college student, chatting from his dorm room a few blocks away.

Other site frequenters describe the Rouletter who wears the head of a horse costume and the Hanging Man, who has rigged his Web cam so it appears to depict a dead body, swaying from the ceiling. The effect, needless to say, is horrifying.

Dubbed by some blogs as “the most addicting site ever,” ChatRoulette deliberately shuns the usual social-network safeguards: You do not need to be someone's “friend” to see the person's picture; you do not have to be “following” each other to exchange private messages; you do not need to be a genius to see why this could be every parent's worst nightmare.

“Are you writing about all the masturbating guys on here?” one chatting high school student asks when she learns I'm a journalist. “GROSS.”

Jim Gault, assistant superintendent of secondary schools for Toledo Public Schools, said he would urge parents to be cautious.

“Any time that students are on the Internet participating in chat rooms or social networks, it's always wise for parents to make sure they're monitoring that,” he said. “You never know who's on the other end.”

Ms. Miller, who teaches a course called “Internet Communities,” said she sees the potential for social good in bringing together people with different perspectives on the world, but she fears ChatRoulette is being used more by people with “baser instincts.”

She explained that “it seems very clear, from the anecdotal evidence, that there is a preponderance of perverts on ChatRoulette. The chances of hitting the jackpot (an intelligent person who actually wants to have a mutually enlightening conversation) seem very slim.”

The origins of the site, founded in November, were a mystery until recently. The servers traced back to an anonymous host in Europe, and speculations abounded. Was it a social experiment? A trap for pedophiles? Recently, the much more benign answer was revealed: The founder was Andrey Ternovskiy, 17, of Moscow, who told the New York Times in an e-mail that he'd originally created the site for his friends, and while he runs a few modest ads on the site, he never expected it to get so huge.

Visitors to the site have skyrocketed from a few thousand in its early weeks to about 20,000 at any given time. It's not hard to imagine the marketers who would want to harness that traffic. It's equally easy to imagine what they would want changed in order to invest. No X-rated material. And parental permission, please, to protect minors from nudity and terribly real-looking suicide tableaux, which can pop up when you least expect them.

On my second visit to ChatRoulette, I encounter the Hanging Man — at least one of them. This one, a 20-year-old Englishman named Damon, says he inherited the meme from a friend. “It shocked me at first,” he writes. Now, “the reactions are fairly funny. I normally get a worried look, then I follow it with `How's it hanging?' and I get a laugh.”

I managed to track down the chatter in the horse costume by phone.

“To tell you the truth, I haven't been on since Christmas,” says Aaron Perrin, a college student from England. He'd enjoyed the magical stranger connections but stopped visiting when he went home for winter break. He doesn't anticipate coming back. “The people I know who still go on say it's changed considerably,” he says. “It's much more explicit now,” and more crowded, too.”

Meeting strangers online might feel subversive and screwball, but the ultimate lesson is pure Sesame Street. Under the spandex and fetish gear, we're all pretty much the same, and all pretty banal. How many times in a two-hour span do you want to tell someone where you're from and what time it is there? What exactly are you hoping to find?

The Horse Man is over it, the original Hanging Man has passed the torch. Still, thousands of others will likely find amusement for a while, or until something new comes along, clicking “Next,” again and again.

Blade Staff Writer Ryan E. Smith contributed to this report.



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