Chatroulette and the ‘Next’ big thing

In a tiny corner of the World Wide Web, there is a very special place where you can get strangers to sing to you, dance for you, and yes, even flash you their goods.

Hailed as the “next big thing” on the web, Chatroulette follows in the footsteps of other well-known social networking sites: MySpace, Facebook and Twitter.

The idea is simple: you log onto the site, enable your webcam and proceed have live text and video online chats with randomly chosen strangers. If at any point you’re not into your partner, you can “Next” them and be immediately connected with someone new. It’s a mind-numbing exercise on how to bruise a person’s ego.

Created by 17-year-old Russian, Andrey Ternovskiy, Chatroulette’s concept arose from video chats that Ternovskiy used to have with friends on Skype. It took him “two days and two nights” to create the first version and the site was officially launched last November. As of early March, the site currently has around 1.5 million users.

Most of the people on the screen will be men – some fat, some ugly, some surprisingly not bad. Other times, there will be young girls giggling and batting their prepubescent eyelashes at their virtual partners. Chatroulette’s demographics are just as random as hitting Next and rolling the dice.

“It’s hilarious, but it’s dangerous because you can’t control what you see,” says Bre Carnes, a third-year concurrent education student. “Young girls are on it doing silly and inappropriate things and they’re seeing inappropriate things, too. That’s really going to get them into trouble.”

The pervy desperation of Chatroulette is certainly there, but there’s something to be said about the users who look so lonely that you almost feel bad for Nexting them. These are the girls and boys sitting alone in the dark with wistful looks on their faces. To be honest, I’m not sure which is worse – the men who jack off on camera and ask to see a nipple, or these people, who look like they’re just waiting for someone to connect with, someone who will listen.

“Sometimes I’ll find myself feeling sorry for the people sitting alone in the dark,” says Sarah Davidson, a fourth-year McMaster University student who admits she would never use the site by herself. “You can kind of tell that those people actually seriously just want to make a friend.”

Whatever the reason behind a person’s decision to use the site, Chatroulette still provides an interesting method for reaching out to people.

Celebrities like Jessica Alba, The Jonas Brothers, Ashton Kutcher, and Nicole Richie have also taken to Chatroulette. Their agenda is very clear: try to stay hip and relevant to the site’s predominately 18 to 24-year-old demographic. To them, there is no better way to do this than to chat with the common folk about life’s most minute details, as if they care. A screenshot is taken and the story about the average Joe who stumbled across a big-time star on the website becomes big news on the web – just like the agents had planned.

But despite its immense popularity right now, I’m not sure Chatroulette has the same long-lasting appeal of its social networking predecessors. Sure, it’s fun, but in the long run, it’s really just a playground for sketchy creeps and drunk (or stoned) university students.

And aside from all the penis flashes and desperate pleas to “show us your tits!” there really aren’t many opportunities to forge real connections with people. It’s not like Facebook or Twitter where you can stay in perpetual contact with friends and acquaintances. Your experience with the strangers on Chatroulette is fleeting and ends as soon as someone gets bored or tired and decides to move on.

This whole craze will fade and die, much like the site’s individual chat sessions. And when that happens, we’ll all move on to the next “next big thing.”

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