1. You must be 16 or older.
2. Please stay clothed.
3. Please click “Report” if you don’t like what you see.
The game: Chatroulette.
This latest (at least as of this week) addition to the social networking world is a website that pairs random strangers for webcam-based conversations around the country or around the world. Users can communicate with each other via text, video and or audio, and the conversations last until they decide to move on to someone else who looks interesting on the site.
There is a definite roulette-like aspect to using Chatroulette, because anyone who signs on may be “nexted” which means he or she is just the next one up when another user leaves one chat and clicks “next” to go to whoever’s profile shows up right after that one.
From zero to 60
I first came in contact with Chatroulette (www.chatroulette.com) a couple weeks ago while watching ABC News do a piece on it. Like other new Web 2.0 innovations, it has caught the media’s attention. But seldom do such inventions leap in marketing popularity from zero to 60 in four months time. That is exactly what Chatroulette has done, however.
The service was launched last November by a 17-year-old Russian high school student in Moscow named Andrey Temovskiy. You read that right: 17. Within a week there were about 500 users; a month later there were 50,000; this month there are 1.5 million around the world, with about a third of them in the U.S. alone.
The thought behind the service wasn’t rocket science. Ternovskiy says he developed the idea after having video chats with friends over the internet video phone service, Skype (www.skype.com).
An image sticks
And the name? It came from the 1978 Robert DiNiro and Chris Walken film, The Deer Hunter. Remember the scene when DiNiro, Walken, and John Savage are taken prisoner in Vietnam and forced by their captors to play Russian roulette? That image suck in Ternovskiy’s mind and became the name for his new service.
Techically, the site uses Adobe Flash and webcams on users’ computers to enable video exchange. Flash can handle peer-to-peer communication by using RTMFP that lets nearly all audio and video streams to move directly between individual computers of users without using server bandwidth.
We’ve all heard stories about the guy who produces the next big thing right out of his bedroom, and this is one of those stories. This young Russian still works out of the bedroom he grew up in, and is assisted by four programmers who work out of remote locations and who probably aren’t much older than him.
Working from home
One of the great things about the Internet is that many new concepts begin with very limited funds. Again, Chatroulette is one of those stories. Ternovskiy funded his site with a $10,000 loan from Mom and Dad, which he has since paid back. He makes money from advertising links set up with an online dating site called True, and who know where all this will go.
I dialed up the site last night and was first struck by the fact there is no traditional home page, but just a page with a short welcome, the three above rules, and a quick set of instructions. Along the top are three tabs labeled “New game,” “Report,” and Pause.” On the left side are two windows labeled “Partner,” and “You.” The idea is extremely simple: you must first engage your webcam, then you follow a couple quick instructions, click “New Game,” and you go online and are in line to be “nexted” by a new chat partner who could be living across the street or around the world.
If things get dicey, you can click “Report,” which supposedly sends up a red flag to
programmers. Apparently, after three such flags are hoisted for the same “chat partner,” that user is banned for 10 minutes, although verification for that claim is hard to find. The Chatroulette homepage carries no information about the site at all beyond the information I just listed.
Take it slow
Like all internet sites, this one should be used with caution, and self-disclosure should be kept to a minimum because — fantasies aside — you have absolutely no idea if the face you are talking to belongs to a safe or truthful person.
One of the lures of Internet chatrooms and dating sites is that they can offer instant relationships, maybe with the person of your dreams. The reality is that relationships aren’t that easy, and it takes time to get to know each other and see how genuine each of you really is.
Given the high stakes of self-disclosure, it’s no time to gamble away your privacy in the land of the virtual unknown.
When I was in grad school at the University of Missouri (refusing to become a Tiger fan, especially when the Sooners were in town), I learned some stuff that was useful and some that was not.
One of the useful things was that often “common sense” is more of a personal perspective than a common one.
I learned this one night when I was out getting a beer with a newfound friend from New York City. At one point on the drive home in his convertible, I asked him what he noticed most when he came to Missouri.
Without hesitating, he said, “The sky. I never got to see the sky growing up in Manhattan. Too many tall buildings.”
For me, however, it was the trees and hills that caught my attention. We didn’t have that many of either in Midwest City when I was growing up.
So here we were, both in the same new state now and yet seeing it differently because of our backgrounds. You might say because of our tribes.
I learned some other useful things from a guy I never met but came to know through readings. His name was Marshall McLuhan and he was this quirky (at the least) Canadian English professor who became the darling of the media world when he started weaving into soundbites all these neat pronouncements about us and television in the 1960s and 1970s.
Among McLuhan’s more famous lines were, “The medium is the message,” and my favorite, “The medium is the massage.”
The first thought connotes that the media that bring us the messages are just as influential to us — maybe more — than the message itself. The second thought suggests that the media don’t just deliver messages; they take hold of us, shake us up, and leave us in a different emotional or mental state than when they found us.
Additionally, each different media form massages us in different ways. We can read about a traumatic event like 9/11, following the thread of trauma from one thought to the next and forming a mental and emotional opinion. Or we can watch that same event on television and become instantly and emotionally rocked. Television delivers not just a message but all the jarring shock of the experience itself.
McLuhan also had a lot to say about the tribes that the new media — as he knew them in the 60s and 70s — were creating. These observations composed some of his best “flips” of thinking. For example, he said the original media forms of writing created a literate society of humans who could come together in a common place, socialize and trade a wide variety of perspectives and ideas.
But the “new media” of television (and he later added rock music) split that community into bits and pieces, creating a myriad of tribes often within the same family. Each member would pursue his or her own interests and traditions, and even speak their own language in a way.
In short, he said the mass media were sending us back into tribalism.
Some of McLuhan’s ideas have not panned out as the decades have passed, but this one about tribes has. Whatever McLuhan envisioned to be true about TV creating new tribes has become exponentially more true when it comes to the Internet and especially those sites we call social networks. By this very name, sites like Facebook, MySpace, and Twitter are tribal-forming.
We may call members our “Facebook friends” but we could also call them our tribe.
For years now, I’ve been wondering if the mass media area in which I teach has moved beyond that description. There is nothing really mass about a person’s Facebook site which consists of a select few, like-minded people. I have something like only 30 Facebook friends. But even accounting for one of them who has 1,400, that still doesn’t fall into the “mass” category.
We’re talking tribes here; we’re talking personalized media and not mas media. There are a lot of plusses to that for those of us so mobile that our tribal members are scattered all over the country. But we also still need that central pool of information, knowledge, and awareness that is found in what we would now call the traditional media of newspapers and television.
In other words, it’s okay for me to look out there into the Missouri night and see the trees and for my friend to see the sky as long as we both know those are only parts of the whole and that there is much more to learn and discover about this new place we’ve landed.
To help meet that goal, maybe we should go buy a newspaper.