Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Vol. CLIV, Issue 10
Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Chatroulette: Vulgar, artistic, awesome

Chatroulette, the Web site that provides users access to random video chats with complete anonymity, has exploded onto mainstream culture with Twilightesqe force. I hadn’t heard of it two weeks ago, but everyone I know seems to be talking about it now.

If you’re not as young, hip and devilishly handsome as I am (it happens to everyone, don’t worry about it), you might be unfamiliar with this fascinating social phenomenon. I heartily recommend you try it: it presents astounding new possibilities for art and can be a wonderful mix of fun and randomness.

When you load Chatroulette, you are presented with what your webcam sees, and a black square of space soon to be occupied by someone else’s space. The rules are simple: either party can press “Next” at any time, with no consequences for abrupt departures. Most users that I have encountered on the site do not use their built-in microphone, but rather use the text chat function to the right of the dual video feeds.

A paradigm for the Internet at large, Chatroulette follows a simple rule: You have no idea what you will see, but there is a good chance it will be inappropriate or just plain pornographic. Yes, there certainly are quite a few masturbating dudes who position the camera at their penis; I’ve even seen a couple, a man and a woman, engaged in the act of fellatio (Next! Please!).

There are those who use the sheer quantity of real naked flesh to say that Chatroulette is somehow evil, that through its anonymity it represents a breakdown of our established social order. I couldn’t disagree more. Chatroulette does no harm to anyone, because using the site is of course entirely voluntary. The people who complain about the site as in any way pornographic and thus bad should just not use it. It would spare us the trouble of encountering such boring chat partners.

Moreover, the constant sight of (mostly male) genitalia actually enriches the experience. I don’t mean that I enjoy the sight, but the threat of exposure transforms each “Next” into a bomb just waiting to go off. As a crazy high school English teacher once explained it to me, “We go to the theater because there’s danger in our proximity to the actors.”

In much the same way, the possibility of shocking nudity, though certainly vulgar, makes us pay more attention to each moment with a kind of wonderful fear in our hearts.

If you move away from the issue of nudity, you discover a strange, fascinating world where manners don’t work in the same way and no one makes any real connections. There are a glut of people from other countries or who speak other languages, and I have watched their faces light up with delight when they discover that someone on the screen speaks (or tries to speak) their language. It legitimately offers an opportunity to practice foreign languages on native speakers.

Chatroulette also provides the context for social experimentation that even constitutes, in some cases, a new art form. There are many people in masks, the most popular of which is the Guy Fawkes mask from “V for Vendetta.” Some people try to creep their partners out, even going so far as to have a fake body from the ceiling and no one in the frame (there is an auto-connect feature that allows for this). There are plenty of normal people, too.

To consider these things as a form of new art requires either an extreme amount of pretentiousness or a huge lowering of the bar for what exactly art is, based on your perspective. Whatever your thoughts about its artistic merit, however, no one disagrees that the site can be riotously fun.

My favorite Chatroulette story comes from a female friend of mine who prefers that I don’t use her name. She ‘nexted’ onto a person with large signs titled “The Boob Olympics” which showed two columns, the left side labeled “U.S.”, the right side labeled “Other Countries.” My friend, seeing that the United States was losing, valiantly decided to help her country by flashing the man. (I was, of course, not in the room.)

“[It felt] liberating. I had never flashed someone before,” she told me.

But it didn’t matter that much: because it was Chatroulette.

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