In Nov. 2009, Andrey Ternovskiy, a 17-year-old high school student in Moscow, launched a site named Chatroulette.com. The concept is a simple one, and it has taken the Internet by storm just a few months after its launch, but has it taken the Internet to an even darker place in the idea of sharing.
The concept is a simple one: you log into the site and click the “Start” button, and your webcam is activated while the site connects you to a completely random stranger from somewhere else in the world. The “Stranger”, as they are labeled, appears in the top window, while you — labeled “You” — appear in the bottom. A large chat box is to the right of the two windows so you can converse with the other person. You can also do audio chat, but in our brief perusing of the site, there didn’t seem to be many people with this enabled.
If you get bored, or just don’t like what you see, you simply click on the “Next” button and move on to the next random chat person.
The site was relatively unknown until it was discovered by the likes of New York Magazine and The New York Times earlier this month, and now it seems you can’t throw a rock without someone talking about it. On a typical night there are at least 20,000 people on the site chatting with one another, and there is even a Missed Connections site for it now for people that don’t get to share all of the information while chatting, but would like to continue speaking with people they meet.
While the site sounds innocent enough at first blush, click “Next” a few times and you will quickly begin to see the problem. In about 90-seconds of clicking next, possibly one camera every 3 – 4 seconds, I saw at least five occurrences of men who were naked and engaged in sexual behavior. Considering that teens seem to be flocking to the site, a good portion under the age of consent, and there is a definite problem. While the site expressly states that you must be at least 16 to use it, and you can click the “Report” button to flag users who are abusing the site, but with the number of people doing it, the culling of the herd will take a mighty long time if it is even possible.
Then there are the pranksters who, according to Boing Boing, are replacing their webcam images with static images such as the infamous Goatse picture (if you don’t know what that is … Google it, but you have been warned what is seen can not be unseen). Which may not be quite as bad as someone showing themselves off in real-time, but it can still be pretty traumatic to a young person.
This isn’t to say that everything about Chatroulette is bad, but in its current form it is rather ripe for abuse. Luckily there are people having fun with it also, like the guy in a full Cobra Commander costume asking random people to be his valentine, or the guy I ran into in a demon mask playing the violin. (for the record, he wasn’t half bad) And there is a lot to be said for having fun with new sites and technology, but I’m afraid that the number of people abusing the site far outweighs those who are just trying to have a bit of an innocent laugh with it.
Perhaps it is my older-than-the-average-user age (I’m currently 38) that makes me view things in a slightly different perspective than most in the tech industry, but I always worry about the potential harm to children in any new site that is taking off. How long until the pedophiles hit the site if they haven’t already? How long until we hear the first story of a teenage leaving home to go meet some older person they met on Chatroulette? Mark my words, these stories are coming, and with the complete anonymity that the site offers, it is an even more fertile playground than the social networks have ever been.
There is certainly no reason to blame Mr. Ternovskiy in this, that’s like the people who blamed William Winchester for all the people his guns killed back int he old west of the United States. No, this high school student built something that on the surface is a fun waste of time, it is just unfortunate that the human race always finds ways to abuse things in ways that even the people with the best of intentions can’t possibly fathom.