When I sit down in a public bathroom stall, one of the first things I notice are the anonymous vulgarities scribbled within arms length of the toilet. Racial slurs, phone numbers, ruminations, and even the occasional glory hole adorn the divider between stalls, separating both the reader and writer from the common guilt of social taboo. This particular brand of porcelain prose makes me wonder about the authors, and why the common impulse in private public spaces is to ruthlessly expose yourself to an invisible audience of complete strangers.
The other day, an old friend told me about “Chat Roulette,” a maturing website which seems to demonstrate this collective impulse more explicitly than any bathroom stall I’ve ever been in. Launched on November 7, 2009, Chat Roulette is a one on one chat room, linking one user with another through the use of a web camera and an empty box for text. At any point during their interaction, either party has the option to click “stop” or “next,” instantly reconnecting them with another “complete stranger” in the available pool of users. The site has been skyrocketing in popularity since its inception in November, going from 200 users to nearly 35,000+ within the last couple of months. But like any other social network with a simple infrastructure, the imperatives of Chat Roulette are user based, acting as a social canvas for common impulse and utility.
Considering there seems to be no ostensible agenda for a website like this, the environment quickly turns into a dumpster for social taboo, a voyeuristic carousel that pits users against each other in an anarchic social confrontation. As an appendix to profile-based social networks, Chat Roulette offers a place without history, a self-contained world where your image lingers as long as you want it to. In contrast to the ubiquity of Facebook or Myspace, Chat Roulette represents something a bit less tangible, archival. It thrives on an absence of history, on a universal desire for social confrontation with a reset button. Completely protected by the four walls that Chat Roulette provides, users are in complete control of their interactions, taking full advantage of a personal life without social repercussion.
One of the most popular uses of Chat Roulette is the technological manifestation of the glory hole: a one on one masturbation session consummated by the twin desire of two faceless members. The ratio of people to penises on Chat Roulette is roughly 10 to 1, making the chances for sexual connection greater than any other free chat website on the Internet. The idea is that once two members find each other, they sit in front of their computer and masturbate via web cam. This unspoken agreement between users exhibits a common pattern in modern social networks, as if it is almost human nature to re-appropriate these unassigned venues for sexual impulse in the absence of social repercussion.
Another popular use seems to be the narcissistic fulfillment of the self-image. As a high speed social network, the format calls for an immediate assessment of the user based on gender, style, race, etc. This can either act as a positive or a negative feature depending on self-consciousness of either party. Suggesting that confidence somehow correlates with how much they are willing to expose, disclosure ranges from jumpsuits and Halloween masks to full-frontal nudity. The other end of the spectrum would be to shut off your web camera completely and sift through bedrooms without ever having to expose yourself at all, giving the user a cloak of invisibility that many other social networks seem to provide without the camouflage of user names.
Like the writings on the wall, Chat Roulette is an infinite dialogue between the reader and the writer, an empty calorie of social interaction where common impulse and exhibitionism govern the actions of its users. With nothing to police behavior, we are confronted with a brute representation of the human condition, an unforgiving gaze into the depths of technological vice. The bastard son of boredom and voyeurism, Chat Roulette forces a new generation of users into an irreversible funk of social impotence, imposing a new brand of cultural assessment into the hands of the majority. As social models like this continue to proliferate, it seems as though websites like Chat Roulette will continue to define the way we see the world: as a series of backless frames governed by the resounding click of a computer mouse.