The Wild West returns to the Web

Ryan Sheridan

At one point in the late 1990s, it seemed as if everyone was on America Online (AOL).

It was, after all, the globe’s largest Internet provider with 30 million users worldwide at its peak. For those in their early teens, it provided a first experience in online chatting. Although AOL chats have fallen to social media giants Facebook and MySpace in recent years, a new site called Chatroulette, which launched last November, has brought back anonymous chatting – only this time it’s face to face, using a webcam instead of a keyboard.

Russian roots

Andrey Ternovskiy, a 17-year-old high school student from Russia, created Chatroulette. “I was looking for a site like this, one that would let me chat randomly on webcams,” he told the New York Times, “and I couldn’t find it, so I thought I would try to build it.”

It took three days for Ternovskiy to build Chatroulette, and users quickly followed. The site now boasts a user base of 35,000 people at any given time, according to CNN.

Unlike Facebook, which pries for one’s most personal information, Chatroulette is completely anonymous. It doesn’t even require a username or password. All you need is a webcam and an open mind. You should also prepare yourself: People on the Internet are still as weird as they were during the days of our AOL chats.

Not for children

Recent media reports have condemned Chatroulette as not being appropriate for children. Like most things on the Internet, it’s not. The site’s terms of service state you have to be at least 16 years old to use it, but it doesn’t require birth date verification, so essentially anyone can use it. While rouletting, you’re almost guaranteed to see naked men and women dancing or performing less desirable acts.

But once you get past the amateur strip shows with the simple click of the “Next” button, Chatroulette becomes its own unique beast, giving you glimpses into the rest of the world.

Why use it

Since Chatroulette has such a wide reaching global user base, it’s like hanging out with foreign exchange students from the comfort of your own home. One girl I chatted with from Japan told me about the weather in Tokyo. I discussed music with a guy from Brazil and politics with a girl from Montana. Unfortunately, these types of conversations are few and far between. Most users treat Chatroulette like an impromptu dating service, where the person who sees the most skin wins.

Chatroulette does provide a direct line for bands to take advantage of the site’s virtual stage. Tahiti 80, a French indie pop quartet who has toured the world, treated random users to a live performance on Monday night. I logged on to see it, but because Chatroulette doesn’t have designated chat rooms, I was sadly unable to find it.

If investors keep knocking on Ternovskiy’s door, I predict Chatroulette may add additional features, and I hope designated chats will be one of them.

Judging a book by its cover

Chatroulette is similar to a live version of Friendster or enter our favorite bookmarks alongside YouTube. It has the potential to grow into an international entertainment hub, but its teenage creator seems content with its current model.

Contact features correspondent Ryan Sheridan at [email protected].