By now, you’ve heard of it: the random, anonymous webcam chat sensation frightening the mainstream and drawing out curious users by the droves. With not only video, but audio chat capabilities, Chatroulette really does “invite strangers into your living room” just the way Momma warned us about when we first got dialup.
My first venture into Chatroulette wasn’t what I expected. I’d been promised masturbating frat boys, furries in leopard suits, and guys displaying: “SHOW YOUR TITS FOR HAITI!” signs. I may, possibly, have been the only person getting on Chatroulette in the hopes of actually experiencing these things. As a voyeuristic perv, it seemed like the perfect way to watch a little action and chat with naked people doing hot things without paying $3.95 a minute to gaze at a bored pro.
Instead, I was connected to an attractive thirtysomething lady with a perm. She was sprawled on her belly on her bed, gazing thoughtfully into her webcam. I froze. They say the anonymity of the Internet fuels less civil behavior, but I realized in that moment, that it was more than that, at least for me: seeing her face—in real time—made it impossible for me to proposition her.
It felt like being at a crowded bar, trying to talk to strangers.
Surely she’d been asked a million times to show her tits for Haiti. I didn’t want to do that to her. So I typed, “Hi! I hope you’re having a happy Tuesday!”—like a nervous virgin unable to muster up the courage to ask the cheerleader out.
I watched her read the words, then smile and type back. “Thanks!”
“I’m off to spread more Tuesday cheer!” I replied, trying to find some reasonable way to close out the session without seeming like a douchebag. Somehow, sounding like a chirpy Home & Garden Network host felt better.
“OK,” she typed. I wasted no time disconnecting.
I couldn’t bring myself to play roulette again that night. What just happened?
Technical Terms and Technology
A recent Kinsey Institute survey discovered that “having sex” is a term with no ready definition: 89 percent of respondents only considered a penis in a vagina as “having sex” if ejaculation occurred. Anal sex and oral sex were also popular “not sex” activities. While I personally consider a much broader range of things as “sex” than the average survey respondent, the Chatroulette experience challenged where I drew my lines. I’d never considered professional pornography sites, even ones with live chat, as “sex”—it is enhanced masturbation, by my rules. I considered random sexy behaviors in text chat with strangers in a similar light.
But if I felt as nervous as I did face-to-face when talking to another “normal” person on video chat, what did that mean? If mutual masturbation on Chatroulette with video and audio chat wasn’t “sex,” did that mean mutual masturbation in person wasn’t “sex” either? If Chatroulette felt like crossing a line because it involved video, why was text any different?
Digging deeper, I learned more about the very crooked line I drew. Texting with someone was sex enough to be cheating, as was sexy instant messaging with a someone you know personally. Apparently, I felt that dicking around with strangers without touching them was okay, but dicking around with people I knew without touching them crossed a line. None of that explained why actually seeing a stranger in Chatroulette seemed to alter my perspective.
I’d always prided myself on logical, clear sexual boundaries—and now this!
Like every sweeping societal advance, technology eventually challenges us on every level of our interpersonal relationships. Even the most technophiliac of us need to check ourselves from time to time and make sure our boundaries are keeping up.
If At First You Don’t Get Peen, Try, Try Again?
I ventured back into Chatroulette, determined to get some action. I zipped from one match to the next, sure that I would eventually stumble upon depravity. I mean, that’s what all the cautionary tales on network news and send-ups on The Daily Show were all about, right?
I got nothing. Bored guy after bored guy after bored guy, all fully clothed, all with their webcams trained on their faces. Nothing from the unofficial Chatroulette Bingo Card popped up on my screen. At first, I felt like the butt of a cruel prank—all this promise of startle-the-mainstream-horses depravity, and nothing but people just like me waiting for something to happen.
At last, it hit me: It isn’t just that technology creates sweeping social advances at light speed; social advances create changes in technology just as quickly. When Chatroulette hit the mainstream, it attracted not only attention but also a plethora of applications of its data. The Internet’s desire to archive the ephemeral resulted in almost instant websites dedicated to screenshots of awkward Chatroulette moments. The anonymity that encouraged users to drop trou despite Chatroulette’s toothless warning to keep it clean was shattered with the unveiling of chatroulettemaps.com, a service associating Chatroulette feeds with their attendant IP addresses on a startlingly accurate map interface.
How could anyone in their right mind pull their pud on Chatroulette these days, knowing that anyone matched to them might post a snarky screengrab for the world to see? How could lusty single ladies feel good about showing their tits for Haiti (or any other reason) while aware that any neighbor poking around on the mapping site could discover their nipple color?
The Future of Chatroulette
As happens so often with interactive cultural phenomenons, the unique aspects that first drew attention to Chatroulette have now been diluted by a flurry of bystanders, voyeurs (myself included), uncertain curiosity seekers, and term-paper authors. The time-honored Internet tradition of early adopters bitching about various services suddenly becoming fashionable is in no danger of extinction, but Chatroulette may be. I can’t be the only one thinking that if Chatrroulette loses its sexy, kooky edge, I’d have more fun meeting dead-eyed strangers in person at a bar than killing my bandwidth to do it.
But if Chatroulette does nothing else, it serves as a wake-up call about anonymity, responsibility, and sexual boundaries—something we all desperately need. There’s always another quick-and-dirty way to hook up through technology right around the corner, and the better we’ve examined our boundaries as they relate to current methods, the easier it will be to adjust as technology outpaces our old standards.