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Updated: May 21, 2014 18:20 IST

Beware of Stranger Surfing

SUDHISH KAMATH
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Illustration for Stranger Surfing.
Special Arrangement Illustration for Stranger Surfing.

It was set to become the next big thing after Facebook and Twitter. But Chat Roulette has become terribly twisted

Bored of Channel Surfing? Up next is Stranger Surfing. Keep an eye on your kids though. You don't want them logging on to one of those sites that randomly pair strangers over a webcam chat. But Chat Roulette (website link withheld to shield you from live pornography) is an interesting idea that's gone disastrously wrong for social networking.

It could've been the next big phenomenon for restless channel-surfing remote control addicts hooked to reality television but the website started by Andrey Ternovskiy, a 17-year-old high school student from Moscow in November 2009, has become a phenomenon for all the wrong reasons.

From 500 users a day in November 2009 to over 1.5 million users in March 2010, parodied on South Park, and used by celebrities, including Paris Hilton, Nicole Richie and Kelly Osbourne, Chat Roulette was all set to become the next big thing after Facebook and Twitter but for one small problem — for some reason, all the sex-starved men around the world decided to hit that website.

Social experiment

As a purely social experiment, we made a few social networking regulars try Chat Roulette. And here's what they reported.

But first, a little about how it works.

The moment you log on to the website, it asks you for access to your webcam. The next thing you see is two windows. The one at the bottom shows you staring at your computer. The one at the top shows a stranger doing the same thing and, of course, you can chat but most of the time, it's a male hoping he'll see a female form at the other end and soon, the stranger disappears.

Why? Because, he's moved on to the next stranger to see who else he can find.

So how do you “play” Chat Roulette?

There are three buttons above the video windows. One says Play, another says Stop and the last one says Report. Hit Play, and the website shows you a new user. Hit Stop, it boots out that stranger and gets you a new stranger when you hit Play again. If you find objectionable content (and you are most likely to), you can report the user. According to the website, users indulging in obscene acts are blocked for 40 minutes when reported by three users.

But given the response from our dipstick social experiment, the Report button really hasn't helped clean up the latest social networking phenomenon.

“I had used Chat Roulette for a long time but am fed up with it. It lacks the magic that Omegle (another such website) has,” says Ganesh APP, known as Sagaro, in geek circles. “I used to hang around Omegle when it started. Then, you could end up bumping into someone interesting and maybe have a decent conversation. It was a good experience, just like talking to a stranger at a train station who ends up questioning your belief and that was like Wow!”

“I have never had more than five seconds worth of conversation on Chat Roulette. Mostly, it is some guy unclothed or doing something obscene. That is when I realised the charm of Omegle where there was always a way to get people's attention. But Chat Roulette, now, is just a bunch of people who lack a life,” observes the adventure-seeking techie.

Vijay S. Raja, who has used Chat Roulette and Omegle, reports: “If you truly need some experience of online video chat, try out Omegle.com. Yes, there are perverts there too but not so many.”

“I was welcomed with an unflattering image of my unhygienic self chewing gum,” says Mihir Fadnavis, freelance writer and blogger. “I'd have closed the window, had my interest not been spiked by a certain online ad with promising women. This was followed by video feeds of a random bunch of dudes, ranging from those asleep to those blinking confusedly or doing things I cannot talk about. It's like Twitter on LSD. At best, Chat Roulette would work very well as a Real Time tool AND as a peppy place to meet strangers, like on Facebook. Shuffling quickly between various strangers may prove exhilarating. And for those wanting to hook up, it may serve as a digital version of those ‘group dating establishments' where one gets to meet and interact with strangers for 10 minutes each. However, the presence of adult content in the videos is a disappointment. I wonder if the site could incorporate filters like on YouTube.”

Yes, it all sounds sleazy but is it the medium that makes it so or the users? It is a little disappointing to think about what it could have been. If only people used it for the four-letter word it was originally meant for – chat!

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