The rush of ChatRoulette and the struggles of a “shuffle” world

Are you going to read this post? Or are you looking for the “next” button?

I’d never heard of ChatRoulette until this weekend, when a pair of news articles – one at New York Magazine, the other at the Globe and Mail – brought it to my attention. My reaction was equal parts flummoxed and fascinated. What they described was something that I’m reasonably confident that I never, ever want to try myself, but which I still find utterly compelling.

If you’re unfamiliar with ChatRoulette, don’t feel out of touch – it only launched in November, but it’s reportedly getting 500,000 unique visitors each day. In a nutshell, it’s basically the staple of 1995 Internet – the chat room – with a 21st century twist. Instead of selecting a particular room to join, the service flips on your webcam the moment you click “start” and immediately throws you face-to-face with a random chatter. You’re free to talk to them, either by text or voice chat, or you can click “next” and in a flash abandon this person for someone else.

Without many rules beyond the power of clicking “next,” at lot seems to go down in ChatRoulette. Both articles do a good job outlining the kinds of interactions that take place. Some are almost adorable, such as the guy who draws people’s pictures or the girls who want to throw Michael Jackson dance parties. Some, like the guy dressed in a cat suit or the dude with a deer’s head mask (who starts all conversations with “What’s up, doe?”) are just weird. Most distressing, of course, are those who get a sexual rush from the service; from the sounds of it, even a casual browse through ChatRoulette finds more penises than a Harvey Keitel movie marathon.

Given the high perv-to-productive ratio, it’s a wonder that ChatRoulette finds an audience at all. And while its likely to be a quick-burn fad that comes and goes, that doesn’t negate its twisted appeal. What’s disturbing about ChatRoulette isn’t just that people do disturbing things with it. It’s that the whole thing just makes so much sense.

The philosophy of “shuffle” is new to the world of chat, but hardly unique in the digital age. It’s best embodied in Apple’s iTunes and iPod, where sometimes the only way to deal with such a staggering volume of available music (almost 28 days worth, in my case) is to let fate take over and determine your playlist for the evening – that is, unless you don’t like what fate gives you, in which case the next song is only a click away. Online radio services like Pandora or Last.FM operate under a similar model, where any dislike can be quickly and easily dismissed for the next sound.

From there, we expand this model into other forms of media. I read a study once that found the average viewer clicks away from a YouTube video within eight seconds if they don’t plan on watching the rest. We build Twitter feeds following anyone we have the slightest interest in and quickly sort through them for anything relevant, quickly disregarding the rest. We build RSS feed aggregators with hundreds upon hundreds of websites and give each headline only a cursory glance before moving onto the next one. And, of course, there’s Google’s always curious “I’m Feeling Lucky” button.

In the digital age, this sort of quick judgment is the only way to survive. Though some blame this behavior on short attention spans, its more a reflection of the volume we’re all coping with. When we have what seems like the entirety of the world’s content at our fingertips –  every song ever recorded, every video ever made, every news article ever written – why on earth would we spend any time with something that doesn’t make its value proposition immediately clear to us? The allure of “the other” is constantly calling our name, and who are we to deny it if what’s in front of us ceases to entertain?

ChatRoulette certainly plays to this behaviour, but its randomness is a level beyond all these other examples, which is decidedly the point. Our primary coping mechanism for dealing with the deluge is to cultivate broad networks of content – Facebook friends, Twitter accounts, YouTube subscriptions, RSS feeds, websites of choice – and then apply our quick judgment to determine what, on any given day, is worth our time. But there’s still a cultivation process, a self-selection where we narrow down what matters to us and, in the process, cut off hundreds of thousands of possibilities. Imagine how many stories, videos, people, experiences that we’re all missing out on because of how we’ve chosen to limit our digital lives.

ChatRoulette offers you no choice in your experience aside from veto power. Instead, it provides a thrill uncommon on the Internet: the thrill of the total unknown, the thrill of discovery not through one’s own effort but through complete, unadulterated chance. It’s one of the few places in cyberspace where a person can abandon control of their digital destiny for a fleeting second and experience the primal thrill of uncertain possibility…and then, in a flash, trade it for another rush.

This fusion of pure serendipity with knee-jerk decision making – chat or click – ends up playing to our basest instincts rather than our best. What’s fascinating about both journalists’ experience with ChatRoulette is that it sounds as if the hardest thing to take wasn’t the stupidity or the perverts; after all, you can get rid of them in a simple click. No, what both found distressing is the effect that rejection had on them as person after person refused to talk to them, as if they were back in grade school and their self-worth was being questioned every time someone dismissed them. The few productive chats they found didn’t seem worth the effort it took to just find someone willing to talk to them.

In the physical world, social convention keeps us polite for our mutual benefit: if I start a conversation with you in a coffee shop, I’m not going to walk away after a couple of seconds because I wouldn’t want you to do the same. Online, though, our communal instincts get replaced by our individual ones: my social network, my media, my content, my time to decide what I do with it. Though only a few ChatRoulette users wear masks literally – and some wear nothing at all – the mask of pixels between them and their counterpart leads them to treat their conversation like just another feed, just another song, just another piece of content expected to gratify quickly, to kill or be killed.

Next.

Watch: Jay-Z – “On to the Next One”

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