Sunday, March 7, 2010

Chatroullete - The End of Days

   First of All is, in essence, fairly modern.
   Well, no, we are not. But we have our moments. Occasionally we dip into the slipstream of current technology to see what's what. (We have an iPhone. Does that count?) Of course, the gadgets rarely work: we are surrounded by an invisible force field which breaks all things tech/mechanical. But, well, one tries.  
   And so it was that, Friday night last, we decided to check out Chatroulette, the latest in alleged social networking sites.
   Chatroulette, it turns out, is the spawn of the Devil.
   Here’s how it works. When you arrive at the site, a window pops up. The large blank part in the center is for instant messaging. To the left of that, two black boxes sit one atop the other. You click a button marked "New Game” and enable your computer’s camera. Voila: the bottom box is now a screen all lit up with your pretty face. 
   Presently – it may only take a second – a person appears in the top screen. This is your "partner" for the moment. He (or she) is looking at his screen, where you’re appearing. If he doesn't like your looks, he clicks the "Next" button to delete you. Or you delete him (her). Eventually, someone else appears. 
   Most of the people we saw sat at computers. Some were solo, others in pairs, still others in groups. The majority were in their teens and twenties. (The site requires users to be sixteen, but evidences no apparent way of checking ages.)
   A red-headed young man was the first to appear on our screen. We began an instant-message conversation with him. We mentioned that we were new to Chatroulette, and asked how it worked. We suppose we were trying to figure out the site's social mores. 
   Dumb us. Social mores. Ha ha. He wrote back a sentence or two – and then disappeared. Someone replaced him. That person vanished. A third. Same thing. This repeated itself over and over. The speed with which people appeared and disappeared was dizzying. One felt like a human pinball, but without the joys of the game. 
   Now, one is of a certain age. (Fifty-three.) A young Chatrouletter seeing a fiftyish person on his or her screen is bound to move on: they’re likely much more interested in peer conversations, and understandably so. Our experience, then, may not have been representative. (By way of social experiment, next time we’ll have a cute friend in his early twenties be the screen presence. We'll see if people stick around for him.) 
   We settled, instead, into the role of anthropologist. It didn't take long to get that Chatroulette is not just for chat. Apologies to those with delicate sensibilities, but the truth must out. My "partner" screen variously filled with the torso of an unclothed man who was holding his erect, er, member; a close-up of another swelled member; and a leering, naked middle-aged man in flagrante delicto with a woman. 
   So Chatroulette exists in part (primarily? We don't know) so people can hook up and/or engage in webcam sex. More broadly, however, it offers people the opportunity to communicate with strangers in far parts of the known galaxy. 
   But what kind of communication? It's hard to say. Chatroulette creates a venue for fast-food relationships that aren’t even relationships. It's a social networking site about which there is nothing social. Even if a connection is established - a webcam conversation, an instant-message exchange - it, too, is tenuous: when one tires of one’s new companion, one simply moves on (or they do). 
   This, of course, absolves people of exhibiting the kind of courtesy that greases (that at one time greased?) the skids of daily human interaction. There’s nary a good-bye nor a thank-you before one is deleted (or deletes). It's brutal, cold, sad.
    Indeed, we found Chatroulette's implications for human interaction dispiriting beyond belief. It’s the ultimate in throw-away culture, but what's being thrown away isn't a material object. It's a person.
   The future is now, and it sucks. 

   (If you want to go mad, visit Chatroulette and see for yourself. I'd be happy to hear about your experiences. Indeed, with your permission I'll post them. Anonymously, of course.)

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