There are a thousand ways to make a binary split of the world’s population, and the one on my mind right now is this: there are the kind of people who pick up a ringing payphone, and the kind of people who don’t. I pick it up.
I love those strange, slightly jarring, unexpected interactions with strangers. I write about them on a blog called Municipal Archive and I teach a graduate class about them at NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications Program. So, I can tell you a lot about the locations and moments in which strangers interact. About the means and methods. These things have been observed and studied and documented. What we don’t really know with any precision—nor even with much poetry—is why.
Chat Roulette is the newest form of what you might call “stranger chat.” It’s a technology-mediated instance of an old cultural tradition: talking to strangers in public spaces. We do it in an ephemeral, casual way in public places, particularly in the anonymous transitional spaces where proximity is especially temporary: elevators, park benches, waiting spaces, the subway. It’s a fleeting connection, a shared moment, an acknowledgment of your common humanity in the bustling, anonymous metropolis.
Chat Roulette is both the same and different from those encounters. You’re talking with a stranger—which you’ve been able to do since time immemorial in chatrooms—but, now there’s a live video and audio feed to accompany the chat window, and the next random stranger is a click away. Video makes the interaction much more risky and intimate, but also more like a chat in an elevator, except you can make your chat partner vanish at any time. When you talk to strangers in public, you’re making an informed choice, whether you’re aware of it or not. You’ve got social cues like your shared location, the person’s appearance, their clothing, how they carry themselves. When you talk to someone on Chat Roulette, you’re confronted with—if you’re lucky—with the head and shoulders of a stranger, and almost no readable cues. You and they both are making a split-second decision about whether to engage with each other.
Did I mention the part about how it’s an incredibly weird experience? Because it is. What you find when you click start and stop and start over and over is a spectacle of humanity, it’s 10,000 stories in the naked city. It’s also a lot of money shots, people who are looking too intensely at the camera for comfort, people in masks, people in masks dancing around, teenage boys and girls in clusters of three hovering over their computers. Some teenage boys told me they were drunk and bored, the teenage girls wouldn’t talk to me. There are about 4 men for every woman on the site, but it varies by time of day. If you click enough, you also find some people who are genuinely curious about actually talking to—connecting with—strangers. I stuck around long enough to find a few of those, and I asked them why they were there.
They were all young, all male, the ones who talked with me. There’s a tiny smile of recognition that passes between people who actually want to talk. I tried speaking out loud, with the audio on, and found it discomfiting and difficult to sustain a conversation. Text chat is much richer. It’s much easier to be vulnerable in writing, to have thoughtful responses, to ask disarming questions. You have a moment to think, to compose yourself.
All the men I talked to wanted to talk about how many masturbators you end up seeing, and they wanted to know what I thought about it. “You have to look at about 400 dicks for every friend you make,” a man in Chicago told me. Another echoed the sentiment. He thought it was worth the trouble. “I get to talk to people I wouldn’t get to talk to in real life.” I asked why that was good. “It’s an adventure and I don’t have to go anywhere.”
Men in Holland and France were practicing their English (and I practiced a little French) and were talking to strangers because it was “unusual” and “funny.” One told me it was just like talking to someone on a train ride. Another said he lives in a small town and rarely sees a person he doesn’t know.
Three themes laced through every conversation I had. The men I talked to said it was a little addictive. They were intrigued and often joyful about the novelty of the system overall, and the fact that their brief connections felt like real connections.
There’s a grey area on the spectrum between the earnest conversationalists and the exhibitionists where you get flirtatious, suggestive talk of varying levels of intensity. A man I talked to in London told me he thought it was exciting, the strangers, the anonymity, the guarantee of never seeing each other again. I asked what kind of exciting. “It’s exciting like your awareness is heightened. And it’s sexually exciting.” He wanted to know if I felt the same way. I hadn’t felt that way with the earnest ones, but this man was bringing the idea of sex into the interaction. I didn’t want to pursue it any further—it was easy to see that he wanted to steer things into something beyond talk—but he was right. It was visual and anonymous and he was being seductive, and that was a little exciting.
After that I stuck to the innocent looking ones. “You’re beautiful,” one said to me, “what are you doing here?” I told him I was writing about it, and asked him what he was doing there. “It’s wonderful,” he said. “I get to see the whole world.”