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Face-to-face with strangers from anywhere, anytime

| From BU Today | By Caroline Hailey (COM’11)

Jennifer Choi (bottom left) and Samantha Ricks (bottom right) connect with a woman from Senegal using Chatroulette.

In mere minutes, Samantha Ricks and Jennifer Choi watch an American soldier in Germany eat cereal, extol the beauty of Indiana to an Austrian artist, and try to get two young men to admit that they’re lying about being French, all without moving from their cramped table in Espresso Royale on Commonwealth Avenue.

Ricks (CAS’12) and Choi (COM’10) are just two of tens of thousands of people signed onto the latest Internet phenomenon, Chatroulette, a free site started by a Russian teenager four months ago.

Here’s how it works: you sign up, log in, and press play. Your webcam is activated and a text box on the screen tells you that it’s “looking for a stranger.”

In seconds, it finds one, and a live video appears. You can start typing, or click “next” and a new stranger appears.

Chatroulette has become a buzzword around campus. While the site’s popularity is growing — a recent visit showed more than 50,000 people using it simultaneously — so too is opposition, stemming mostly from some users’ decision to broadcast in the nude.

“I’ve just heard that it’s really freaky,” says Gillian Rich (COM’11). “I don’t want to go anywhere near it.”

Choi and Ricks say students shouldn’t let Chatroulette’s naughty reputation scare them away. “All our friends who are creeped out by it are the ones who haven’t tried it,” Choi says. “Once you try it, you see how many normal and fun people you can meet.”

Ricks has spent as much as five hours at a time on the site, attracted by the opportunity to talk to people from other countries. She says the most common Chatroulette users are men from Turkey, France, and Britain. “You get to talk about anything and meet a lot of new people,” she says. “But I think the people obsessed with it most are the ones who didn’t have many friends growing up, like me,” she adds with a laugh.

Mina Tsay, a College of Communication visiting assistant professor of communication, has researched the psychology of new media and isn’t surprised by divided public opinion over Chatroulette. “It’s a novel thing, and it’s pushing the envelope on privacy,” Tsay says. “Some people get gratification out of this intimate exposure into someone else’s private life, but others fear it’s changing privacy norms on a societal level.”

Those who find gratification through Chatroulette are sensation-seekers, she says, people who crave high levels of excitement. “They are attracted to Chatroulette because of the unpredictability,” she says. “They have no idea where the next strangers will come from or even who they really are.”

Tsay believes that the number of Chatroulette users will grow exponentially until it reaches a plateau and its popularity levels off. But she doesn’t see it dying out. “Just like Facebook came after MySpace, I think Chatroulette will definitely stick around, but will lead to newer versions of this same idea,” she predicts.

She also sees a benefit for those who aren’t comfortable in social situations. “They’re able to show their emotions and not worry about the impression they’re making,” she says. “It isn’t a substitute for real-life interactions, but sometimes it’s a good alternative.”

Although rejections in Chatroulette may not be as painful as those in the real world, they can still sting. Choi and Ricks are taken aback whenever it happens. “I can’t believe she just nexted us,” Ricks says after a conversation with a young woman from Senegal ends abruptly. “I’m a little offended.”

While Chatroulette has the power to connect people across the globe, there may be at least one rivalry too strong for it to overcome.

“I was talking to this guy from BC for a while,” Ricks says. “And he nexted me as soon as I told him I went to BU. It was so annoying.”

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On 24 February 2012 at 5:02 PM, Chatroulette (ENG) wrote:

Thanks for sharing your chatroulette experience with us. It was funny when i found and tryed chatroulette for the first time. I was with some friends and we enjoyed the time in this fantastic and strange at the same time website.

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