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The Human Shuffle

There’s a reason, of course, that we’ve worked so hard to tame the web. Wildness can be terrifying. A site like ChatRoulette raises all kinds of potential dangers. Garden-variety Internet nastiness is suddenly supercharged: Anyone who gets a thrill from lobbing snark will get an extra thrill from watching people react. (If I were still an unpopular 12-year-old, my first ChatRoulette session might have crushed me for a year instead of just an hour.) Then there are privacy issues—people taking screengrabs of other users in the half-second they happen to be looking at a pornographic image, then spreading them around the web. (I’m sure there are at least 300 images of me wincing at a masturbating stranger.) Sexual predators have never had an easier way to expose themselves, potentially even to children (the site has no apparent age limit). And then there’s the threat of violence. One popular shock image, a picture of a man who’s hanged himself, is terrifying even after you realize it’s fake: It makes you think about the possibility of someone actually hurting themselves, or someone else, in the unmappable ether of social-media space.

A few hours after my first ChatRoulette session, one of my actual physical friends came over to my actual physical house. I told him all about my horrifying experience that afternoon—the insults, the masturbators, the searing flashbacks of adolescent shame. He demanded that we get on the site immediately. Somehow, with two people, the experience was different—the rejections less intense, easier to laugh off. We ended up staying on, talking and dancing, connecting and disconnecting, for four hours. We chatted with Pratt students in Bed-Stuy, with a man inexplicably sitting on his toilet, with a kid waving a gun and a knife, and with a guy who went to my wife’s old high school in California. We saw Chinese kids in computer cafés and English kids drinking beer. We danced with a guy in his bedroom to the entirety of Michael Jackson’s “Don’t Stop ’Til You Get Enough.” We talked for half an hour with a 28-year-old tech writer from San Francisco.

After a while, I started to get the lay of the land. The median age seems to hover around 20, and males outnumber females probably twenty to one. Sex is ever-present, whether insinuated or enacted. (My wife sat in front of the webcam for a while, and it was suddenly, disturbingly, a much friendlier world.) People are endlessly soliciting nudity, both in person and via signs (“FLASH TITS FOR HAITI,” etc.). Roughly one out of every ten chatters is a naked masturbating man, and even they will usually hang up on you, one-handedly, before you can click away.

YOU: yo man
YOU: like your glasses
STRANGER: thanks
YOU: where are you? on a boat? or is that a bunk bed?
YOU: nihao!!
YOU: i learned “nihao” from a cartoon
STRANGER: yeah 你好~
YOU: okay, have a great night! i have to go to bed!
stranger: yeah good night
you disconnected. looking for a random stranger …

The default interaction on ChatRoulette is roughly three seconds long: assessment, micro-interaction, "next." This might seem like yet another outrage of the Internet era—the Twitter-fication of face-to-face interaction. But I was surprised (as I was with Twitter) by how much pleasant communication—joy, interest, empathy—can occur in these tiny chunks. The quest to connect becomes lightning-quick. A few seconds is plenty of time to wave, or give a thumbs-up, or type “EMO HAIR,” or elaborately mime the process of smoking marijuana, or jovially flip somebody off. (Middle fingers are extremely popular on ChatRoulette, and somehow seem affectionate.) The paradox of face-to-face conversation across vast distances seems to do strange things to the human brain. I often found myself acting unlike myself: dancing without provocation with a roomful of Korean girls, greeting people with flurries of over-the-top marijuana slang even though I’ve never even smoked a joint.

As Internet culture has grown, we’ve come to romanticize certain kinds of unmediated, old-fashioned “human” interactions. But this fantasy ignores how much of normal social interaction is fleeting, bite-size, instant, tweetlike. Humans have always talked to each other via a kind of analog Twitter. These new technologies just get us there with maximum efficiency. Meeting a new person is thrilling, in a primal way—your attention focuses completely, if only for a nanosecond, to see if the creature in front of you has the power to change your life for better or worse. ChatRoulette creates this moment over and over again; it privileges it over actual conversation. Eventually, I realized that clicking “next” was not so much a rejection as it was pure curiosity, like riding a train past an apartment building at night, looking briefly into as many lit windows as possible.

It’s hard to predict whether ChatRoulette will become a full-blown viral phenomenon, let alone an era-defining touchstone like YouTube. After that first magical night, I came down with an acute case of ChatRoulette fatigue. It felt like I’d experienced the full range the site had to offer: the shock porn, the dance parties, the weirdly aggressive homoerotic banter. I’d seen every dorm room in America, China, South Korea, and Brazil. I’d been called an old man more times than I could count. (My friend, who’s 37, was accused of being 90 years old, as well as a “kiddie diddler.”)