February 23, 2010

Amateur Ethnography: Chatroulette

I have been amazed at the way perfect storms seem to form during these experiments. I knew one of my experiences this year would happen online. I figured I would enter some random chat room and wait for a meaningful conversation to emerge.

Then, last week, a friend sent me a link to chatroulette.com.

It would be absurd to discuss sexual addiction without focusing on the Internet. My generation grew up with Internet pornography. I still argue that I may have never watched one second of porn without the Internet. Remember when it took like five minutes to download one naked picture? Now, there are millions of videos at my fingertips that can be viewed instantaneously. Oh, how the times have changed.

Since connecting to the Internet for the first time back in 1991 (anyone else remember Q-Link?), I have struggled with online appropriateness. You'll never find me on Dateline NBC's To Catch a Predator, but the Internet was always a place for me to explore my dark side. It still can be when I let down my guard. A few years ago, I got rid of MySpace and Facebook because I noticed myself participating in online conversations that I would never have in person. It was a fantasy world filled with too much temptation. I currently have a Facebook account, but even now, I understand how easy it can be for me to fall back into those old patterns of dysfunction.

As we all know, the Internet is a breeding ground for perversion. That's why Chatroulette intrigued me. One, I wanted to confront my past. How would I react to this new technology? Two, I wanted to find some random person on the site and see where the conversation took us. What happened was more than I had hoped for.

First, I'll explain a little about the website.

Let me warn you up front ... you probably shouldn't visit the site. (I know my warning will only make you want to visit more, but trust me on this one.) The concept is simple. You go to chatroulette.com and click Play. Your webcam turns on, and your video feed will be displayed on the site. At the same time, a random person is selected from all of Chatroulette's online users (there seem to be about 30,000-50,000 people online at any given time), and you see his or her video feed.

If you like what you see, you can chat with the other person. If not, you simply click the Play button again, and you're shown another random video feed. Of course, the other person can also click Play to reject you. It's an interesting concept that could be used for good.

Unfortunately, like everything else in life, Chatroulette can also be abused.

As I clicked through available online users, I noticed some patterns.

First, about 90 percent of the users are men. Sometimes it's groups of friends, but there are a lot of single men on Chatroulette. Second, there are a lot of young people. The Terms of Service establish that a user must be at least sixteen years old. I am guessing most people are either in high school or college. Not all, of course, but a majority. Third, I saw a lot of penises. That's right; you heard me. Penises. Lots of them. Again, the Terms of Service forbid obscene behavior, but a lot of men simply ignore that rule. Literally, almost 20 percent of Chatroulette's users were naked men (putting on a show). Because of the "roulette" feature, you never know if the next click is going to bring a regular person or a penis.

Not everyone on the site is an exhibitionist, but there are enough to make it awkward.

So, I fought through the forest of penises to eventually interact with a handful of random strangers. The rest of this post will be about those conversations.

It is definitely stressful using the site. 95 percent of the time, people glance at your image and immediately click Play to find someone new. (Of course, this is mostly because the site is filled with men, and those men are looking for women to talk to. I bet attractive women don't get rejected very often.) One guy called me a tool. Two teenage girls said, "He's like thirty!" when my video feed showed up on their screen. Ouch. First, they said it like I was a hundred. Second, they used a number that is younger than my actual age! In other words, I'm older than old. That hurt.

Finally, I found a couple of people who wanted to chat, but unfortunately, the website kept freezing up and/or disconnecting me. There were two legitimate conversations that made the whole experience worth the parade of penises.

First, I spoke to a nineteen-year-old girl from Saudi Arabia. Seriously, it was wild. Here is a screen capture of us chatting:

Notice the full Muslim garb. How crazy is the Internet that I video chatted with a Muslim stranger from Saudi Arabia? We had a nice conversation, but it didn't take long before she tried to convert me. She told me my religion was wrong. She also offered to show me her Qur'an. If you click on the picture, you can read part of our conversation. I thought it was interesting when she asked me why people look at her like she's a monster. Her outfit definitely surprised me, but I can only imagine the response she gets from people on Chatroulette.

She refused to take off her headdress so I could see her face (she explained that she is allowed to take it off in her home, but not when in public. I suppose video chat counts as "public.") Just as she was about to show me a picture of herself, our chat froze. Which brings me to a frustrating aspect of Chatroulette. If you get disconnected, that person is gone forever. There is no way to reconnect to a specific person. I suppose you could randomly find them again, but a 1 out of 50,000 connection is difficult to repeat.

My next goal was to corner a naked guy for an interview. (Let's see Katie Couric top that!) So, every time one popped up on my screen (pun intended), I wrote, "Can I ask you a question?" before he could click Play. Most weren't interested in talking, but one guy finally wrote back, leading to an eye-opening conversation about sexual addiction.

I never got his name, so I'll call him Bradley Shaw Wise. Actually, let's go for John instead. After agreeing to answer a few questions, John told me he was 27 years old and bisexual. After I declined his invitation to "whip it out," I asked what compelled him to expose himself in a public forum. John's first response was trite, but I pushed him to give a more thoughtful answer. He finally admitted that he didn't know. He had been doing it since he was a teenager. He "showed off" to friends, strangers, and family members in various contexts without much explanation regarding how his compulsion began.

Next, I asked the obvious question. "Aren't you afraid of getting caught?"

He wrote, "I guess, but I don't do anything illegal."

John seemed to be in denial. I pointed out that I had seen numerous kids on Chatroulette, but that didn't seem to phase him. "I don't force them to get online," he said.

I asked if he felt guilty. He answered, "Sometimes, I guess."

I asked if he ever thought about getting help. He replied, "What kind of help?"

I suggested a support group, a psychiatrist, or some other type of professional help. After a few deflecting responses, John finally said this (I don't have the exact text, so I am paraphrasing): "I wish I wasn't this way, but it's who I am. Everyone has issues. I would stop if I could."

I told him he could stop. I confessed that I still struggle with a lot of his same issues, but I had been slowly healing for many years. I suggested he find a support group in his area, but I have no idea what his response was. A split second later, John was gone, his image replaced by a dude holding up a sign asking girls to show their boobs.

Ahhh, the Internet. Such a mad, mad world.

I was struck by the statement, "I would stop if I could." Addiction is so powerful. Sexual addiction is a double-edged sword, because not only is it destructive, but often, a sexual addict's behaviors are illegal. It seems obvious to the uninfected to just stop being a pervert, but addiction is much more complicated than a simple choice between right and wrong.

For now, beware of Chatroulette. And strange penises.