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ChatRoulette, from my perspective

Simultaneously amused and depressed by the service

Technology trends and news by Danah Boyd
March 1, 2010
Short URL: http://vator.tv/n/e15

 I’ve been following ChatRoulette for a while now. But I haven’t been comfortable talking about it publicly. For one, it’s a hugely controversial site, one that is prompting yet-another moral panic about youth engagement online. And I hate having the role of respondent to public uproar. (I know, I know…) More importantly though, I find it difficult to respond to the fears because I find it endearing. ChatRoulette reminds me a lot of the quirkiness of the Internet that I grew up with. Like when I was a teen trolling through chat rooms, ChatRoulette is filled with all sorts of weird people. And most users ignore most other users until they find someone they find interesting or compelling.

While the site was designed by a teen, minors do not dominate there (although there are plenty of young adults there). And, not surprisingly, teens on the site have ZERO interest in talking to older folks – even old folks like me. It’s the strangest pairing dynamic… You can click Next and they can click Next until something gels. And even though I might want to talk to teens on the site, they have no desire to talk to me. Imagine if I was a sketchy guy. Right: no interest. Likewise, the people who most want to talk to me – a young woman – are the people that I don’t want to talk to. So on and on and on we go clicking next until there’s a possible spark. It’s a game played by flaneurs walking the digital streets.

What I like most about the site is the fact that there’s only so much you can hide. This isn’t a place where police officers can pretend to be teen girls. This isn’t a place where you feel forced to stick around; you can move on and no one will know the difference. If someone doesn’t strike your fancy, move on. And on. And on.

I love the way that it mixes things up. For most users of all ages – but especially teens – the Internet today is about socializing with people you already know. But I used to love the randomness of the Internet. I can’t tell you how formative it was for me to grow up talking to all sorts of random people online. So I feel pretty depressed every time I watch people flip out about the dangers of talking to strangers. Strangers helped me become who I was. Strangers taught me about a different world than what I knew in my small town. Strangers allowed me to see from a different perspective. Strangers introduced me to academia, gender theory, Ivy League colleges, the politics of war, etc. So I hate how we vilify all strangers as inherently bad.

Did I meet some sketchballs on the Internet when I was a teen? DEFINITELY. They were weird; I moved on. And it used to be a lot harder to move on when everything was attached to an email that was paid for. So I actually think that the ChatRoulette version allows you to move on with greater ease, less guilt, and far more comfortably. Ironically – given the recent media coverage – it feels a lot safer than any site that I’ve seen that’s attached to a name or profile with connections to people or identifying information.

Can youth get themselves into trouble here? Sure… like in most public places. And there are definitely youth who are playing with fire. But, once again, why go after the technology when the underlying issues should be the ones we address? Le sigh.

 Anyhow, I was hemming and hawing about what to say about this and I’m still not sure what to say because, truthfully, I like the reminder of ye-olde-Internet culture. I like the fact that there are still a small percentage of folks out there looking for some amusement because they’re bored and they want to connect with randomness, folks who recognize the joy of meeting strangers in a safer space than most physical spaces where that’s possible. I realize that this creates the potential for seeing some pretty gross and/or problematic things and I certainly don’t want to dismiss that, but I’m pretty certain that teens are responding the same way that I’m responding – by clicking Next. Is that ideal? Probably not. And I’d certainly love a filter – not just for teens but for my own eyes. (Then again, I’d also like a spam filter too… Especially here on my blog. Cuz really, who of you who are reading this want to get porn ads here either?) I’m not sure that immature folks of any age (or the easily grossed out) should be on this site. But I do hope that we can create a space where teens and young adults and the rest of us can actually interact with randomness again. There’s a cost to our social isolation and I fear that we’re going to be paying it for generations to come.

So I’m still not sure what to say except that I feel this weighted sense of Le Sigh. The same mix of depression and exhaustion I felt this morning when I was playing peek-a-boo with a smily child in an airport and her parents whisked her away, glaring at me as though I was the devil incarnate. I realize that many parents think that they’re doing good by their kids when they choose to limit their exposure to the randomness of the world, but it just makes me deeply deeply sad. And so I simultaneously am amused by ChatRoulette and depressed because I realize that so many folks would prefer to keep themselves and their teens/college-aged-kids sheltered rather than giving them a way of thinking about systems like this and teaching them to walk away when things get weird. And this deserves a Le Sigh Royale.