Cheering college pregame. Emo kid in the dark. 50-year-old loner. Horrifying hound exposing himself. A "Jerry Springer" marathon? No, "Chatroulette," a recent Internet phenomenon that with each click produces a new face, from somewhere around the globe, with whom you can videochat.
It's described on its official Web site as "a brand new service for one-on-one text-, webcam- and microphone-based chat with people around the world." But Chatroulette is perhaps better captured by urbandictionary.com: "another weird novelty of the Internet, consisting of randomly chosen webcam (if permitting) chat sessions. This is often extremely deviant, and often consists of bored males ..." uh, I'll leave the rest to your imagination because I'm still too scarred to continue.
Within a minute, Chatroulette introduced my friends and me to people from across the world, the country or — to our mildly creeped-out astonishment — the University of Richmond campus. Think chatrooms but with webcams, plus MTV's "Next."
For overprotective parents who banned chatrooms, MTV or both when we were younger, Chatroulette could signify the apocalypse. For NBC's Chris Hansen, fresh fodder for his show, "To Catch a Predator." For emo kids and single 50-year-old men, a chance to feel less alone. For severe sickos, a personal pornography studio. For us college students, a new drinking game.
But as Chatroulette joins "Jersey Shore" on a growing list of mindless yet bizarrely addicting phenomenons, it poses more intriguing questions than, "Where you guys from?" Rather, we might ask: why do we like it so much, how long will the craze last and what greater meaning does this communication free-for-all hold?
It has been apparent for a while now that I am technologically challenged. Forget the iPad — I still haven't gotten the hang of the can opener. My apartmentmates only have to see an unidentifiable aluminum shape pierced with dinosaur teeth marks in the recycling bin to know I was trying to make soup again. So when our University Forest Apartment neighbors introduced my apartmentmates and me to Chatroulette, I was more than mystified.
As much as I see the benefits of online social networking tools such as Facebook, Skype and Gchat (Twitter not so much), is their widening grip getting a little too tight? For example, it recently startled me to spot my Facebook default photo on the side of a sketchy TV-show-streaming Web site asking whether I wanted to connect with complete strangers watching the same show. Um, no.
Chatroulette is like all four programs combined and on steroids. On a campus where we're lucky if we see our friends during the grueling school week, what is the appeal of, not even talking, but scrolling through strangers when there are six other real live humans in the room and thousands more on campus?
As Collegian columnists Jacki Raithel and Kiara Lee pointed out in recent opinion articles, there are plenty of people at Richmond from different backgrounds who could spice up our social links in person, without resorting to speed-chatting with strangers, which is what Chatroulette literally labels your new pals as:
"Stranger: I need relationship advice.
You: Are you serious?
Stranger: Will my girlfriend break up with me if I ask her to ..."
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Again, use your imagination, and yes, that was one truly worthwhile interaction during our Chatroulette orientation, which — I can't lie — hooked us for hours. I was absolutely bewildered yet couldn't divert my
What is it that we like about these kinds of absurd yet shallow interactions? Maybe what columnist Terance Trammell zeroed in on earlier this semester: Our generation is 1 million times more comfortable expressing ourselves via texts or instant messages than in person. Hence, the 17-year-old Russian inventor of the site for whom this creation seemed completely natural.
And, as assistant opinion editor Liz Monahan noted last week, we are 2 million times more comfortable with alcohol. Indeed, my apartmentmates and I agreed during our orientation that we would feel much less awkward on Chatroulette if we were drunker.
Looking back, a sicker but more salient statement could not have been made. Needing alcohol to interact with people: bad. Needing phones and computers to interact: worse. Needing alcohol to interact through computers: a new low. What's next: drunken cyber-marriages as the new tipsy trip to Vegas?
The problem seems to come down to faces — if the site was chat-only, we wouldn't have felt as awkward or disturbed. What is it about faces that freeze us? How did we become so socially handicapped? Will the broadening and intensification of online interaction programs perpetuate more regression than advancement?
In addition to paralyzing us during future relationships, careers and life experiences, this fear of other people has helped engender a scared and stereotypical campus here at Richmond. The impression I got as a freshman and sophomore was that there was a certain way I needed to dress, labels I needed to know and groups I needed to join in order to be able to successfully interact on campus. It wasn't until getting off campus by going abroad as a junior that I realized how foolish that was.
A provoking conversation with a friend this semester further debunked my initial impression when she expressed regret for finding out only just senior year that so many of those students who seemed so put together and to embody the Richmond stereotype have problems too, perhaps more hidden but no less serious than others. Maybe they'll post it as their status on the latest Gmail addition, Buzz: "Had to visit my mom in rehab today. My life, like everyone's, is not as perfect as we all imagine." But I think there's a better way.
We need to stop being afraid to talk or be honest with each other because no one is as cool as he or she looks, and some are cooler than we give them credit for. Try it, even for just one day or interaction. Say exactly what you should to the people you need to. Give a chance to the people you don't. The experience should be liberating and less frightening with time.
Fast-forward a few years: Do we want to be easily able to soberly communicate our thoughts and feelings while looking people in their actual eyes instead of in their eyes through a webcam while consuming alcohol, or will we all be shaking behind cyber-families, cyber-friendships and cyber-careers? I'd reckon we'd all get more out of the former than the latter. The occasional sickos on Chatroulette may be deranged, but at least they're getting off.
Contact opinion editor Maura Bogue at firstname.lastname@example.org
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