I found myself fantasizing about a curated version of ChatRoulette—powered maybe by Google’s massive server farms—that would allow users to set all kinds of filters: age, interest, language, location. One afternoon I might choose to be thrown randomly into a pool of English-speaking thirtysomething non-masturbators who like to read poetry. Another night I might want to talk to Jets fans. Another night I might want to just strip away all the filters and see what happens. The site could even keep stats, like YouTube, so you could see the most popular chatters in any given demographic. I could get very happily addicted to a site like that.
But that site would also lose a lot of what makes ChatRoulette, for now, so weirdly magnetic. If I’d been able to curate my experience, I might never have had what ended up being my favorite interaction: a half-hour chat with a twentysomething, vaguely Kurt Cobain–ish guy in Pittsburgh. We started with the obligatory ganja jokes, but suddenly he turned serious. “Actually,” he typed, “I’m a mystic.” When he offered me a tarot-card reading, I considered clicking “next” in search of more dancing Koreans. I’ve never had a psychic reading—in fact I’ve actively refused them on many occasions—but something about the strangeness of the context made me accept. Although I only vaguely remember the content of the reading itself (I like nature, have been thinking about taking a big trip, etc.), the experience was surprisingly powerful. It felt generous and deep and oddly very human. Maybe it was just the gift of sustained attention in the midst of so many disconnections. Afterward, he told me that his name (like mine) was Sam, although he called himself the ChatRoulette Mystic. He said he liked to think of himself as a “social-media artist”: In the same way that a painter’s canvas, say, can affect the emotions of a museumgoer, he wanted to affect chatters’ emotions through his webcam. It was exactly the kind of New Agey thing I’d probably make fun of in my actual, offline life. And yet I knew exactly what he meant. When he asked if I would spread the word to my friends, I told him I would do my best.