Nowadays, online interaction is done within our selective network of friends-- people we carefully choose to share our lives with. A few months ago, this sense of comfort was disturbed when Chatroulette launched, a site that pairs users with random Webcam partners.
Media coverage is highly negative, mostly because of the half-naked men who (unfortunately) discovered the site.
But Chatroulette also attracts teens, inebriated 20-somethings, old people, kids, and generally every curious type. According to the Guardian News, it lures in about 20000 visitors a night, and has even inspired a copycat site called ShufflePeople.
Half-naked men aside, Chatroulette is simply a fun way to pass time. Like any other game, it involves risk, judgment, and rewards.
The biggest mistake critics make is to assume that Chatroulette is for building relationships. Users are accustomed to joining networks, editing their profiles, and adding friends--they've forgotten what strangers are. It's shocking and uncomfortable when we're faced with a random girl from Czech Republic.
But, isn't this what we do daily in the "real world"? The cashiers at your supermarket, the bank teller, a new co-worker, or a foreign exchange student are all people with whom we interact at random.
It was only until Web 2.0 that the Internet became a place focused on communities and multiuser participation. One-to-one interaction generally disintegrated on the Net, but Chatroulette might be onto something.
In the "real world," people don't get the opportunity to present their profiles. There's a moment when two people meet and judgment is passed: a first impression. From there, the relationship ends or evolves.
Chatroulette emulates such an experience with one exception: you can't get "nexted" in real life. When paired, users have the choice to chat or hit "next" to see a new person. When I tested the site, there were times when I was "nexted" within seconds. A first thought was, "why?" If we interacted in the real world, it would be socially unacceptable for them to just walk away from me.
But on the Web, almost anything goes.
So, is Chatroulette really a social tool? If we remove the notion that Web applications help us build relationships and community, Chatroulette may just be a fun online game. And since every game has its rules, I'm suggesting rule No. 1: Clothes stay on.