Sunday, 21 March 2010

chatroulette: show me your books

ChatRoulette was launched at the end of 2009 (Nov.) and has in a few short months emerged into mainstream discourse. The idea is simple and certainly not new, but it's one that had kind of fallen out of fashion over the last few years: chatting with strangers! The site pairs random individuals from all over the shop and lets them peer into each-other's lives through the webcam window. With the proliferation of social network sites, we've observed a pretty strong tendency emerge whereby people are spending most of their social time online with people they already know -- not strangers. So if ChatRoulette continues to grow, this will mark a nice little shift back to (semi)anonymous chatting with strangers. Although, having said that, the kind of 'chatting' that actually goes on here is debatable. There's no way to pre-select who you'll end up with (it's a gamble, hence the name) so you might end up with some guy rubbing his pants or a bird in a cage or a kid dressed as a stormtrooper or a drunk Polish girl or a whole swathe of regular, inquisitive people. There are lots of funny examples that have been screen-captured (see, for instance -- NSFW).

Anyway, a few weeks ago the local newspaper called me up to interview me about this new interwebz phenomenon, and I sheepishly admitted to never having used it. The interview continued for half an hour or so (slow news week, I guess?) and we'll find out soon what the results are. The reason I didn't abandon the interview from the get go was because I think it's important for public discourse to start off on the right foot here. This site is going to attract a whole lot of really negative media attention very quickly, so before the moral panic takes hold completely I thought I'd have a crack at constructing this site in context. So, in the name of research, myself and an esteemed colleague of mine went about exploring this strange and wonderful world we live in armed only with cheap beer, rum and poor lighting.

Our findings? Yes, there are creeps and weirdos out there, but you'll encounter them wherever you go. Unlike IRL, ChatRoulette allows you to 'Next' people (spin the wheel again and get a new partner) quite frequently. In fact, most of the encounters we had lasted only a few seconds. We waved, they waved, we got nexted. Are we not pretty enough for your interwebz?! Here's a nice little doco that sums things up pretty neatly. No no, it's not personal. After a while we got used to nexting people pretty regularly too. We discovered quite a few creeps, but also had some really great discussions with people from all over the place. We taught this Chinese guy some tricks and he told us a bit about where he lives, what he's studying (Fine Art) and we talked about the differences between our lives. It was kind of cool!

There are quite a few other instances of people doing interesting and funny stuff with the site, such as the piano guy. I'm sure we'll see these proliferate. Hopefully the site won't get commercial or change too much for a while. I'm looking forward to seeing whether or not it continues to build.

I'm really enjoying danah boyd's comments about the site (see a full copy of her SXSW keynote here). I know I'm a big boyd fanboy, but she makes too much sense! This site might be just a fad, but it reminds us about the fantastic potential of the internet to make visible the great and quirky and diverse and sometimes-cringe-worthy, sometimes-laugh-worthy world we live in. Lame? Maybe. I'll enjoy my optimistic youth for a little longer yet if that's ok.

To return to the title of this post, here is a link she shared on twitter recently: show us your books! Love it. Adieu!

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