First of all, let's get a sense of what this ChatRoulette is.
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.
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. Over the course of an hour, I was rejected by what felt like a cast of thousands: a teenage girl talking on her cell phone, a close-up of an eyeball. It started to feel like a social-anxiety nightmare. One guy just stared into the camera and flipped me off. Another stood in front of his computer making wave motions with his hands, refusing to respond to anything I typed. One person had the courtesy to give me, before disconnecting, a little advice: “too old.” (I’m 32.) A girl with heavy makeup looked terrified when my image popped up on her screen—I actually felt guilty, a few rounds later, when the engine of randomness threw us back together and she had to look at my face for another excruciating half-second. My longest exchange was with a guy who seemed to be wearing one of those protective cones you put on a dog after surgery. “LICK YOU ELBOW,” he typed. “Why?” I asked. He disconnected.
Social rejection. Feeling old in one's mid-30s. Random masturbators. Poor spelling.
The author ended up trying it again in the company of a friend, and that somehow made it much more enjoyable. I will concede that the only way I could find this experience palatable (at all) was if my best friend were to sit through it with me. (You know who you are. On that note, the only person I can think of who would be less inclined to try ChatRoulette than me is the Better Half.) Otherwise, the appeal of this is completely lost on me. I've structured my life in such a way that I spend as little time as possible randomly interacting with weirdos, and it's seemed to work out well. (Office hours not included, of course.)
Which brings me to the second reason this is so horrifying to me. I am clearly Old.
This is even less appealing to me than Twitter. (As for that medium, the few people whose thoughts I am interested enough in to follow are the ones with whom I am in regular contact via that antiquated technology called the "telephone.") But (pace George Packer) I don't think ChatRoulette will make me stupid or anti-social or prone to sexual indiscretions with strangers on other continents. I don't think it's evil or a sign of the Death of Society. It's merely unappealing.
And I think this is a sign that I am generationally out of sync with where technology is leading. Reading about ChatRoulette simply makes me want to spend time in real space with my 3D friends. Despite my obvious interest in the Internet (here I am, after all), my truest pleasure still comes from reading a book printed on the remains of a dead tree. Having spent time with the vastness of cable TV, I am content with about four channels.
I suppose this was bound to happen some time. There's nothing to be done but to get a rocking chair, put it on my front porch, and start yelling at neighborhood kids to get off my lawn.