Tuesday, February 23, 2010


Suburbs of Philadelphia, 1995:

After completing a fresh install of Windows 95 from 27 floppy disks, my friend and I are ready to boot his brand new, assembled-by-some-random-guy PC clone. Turbo button engaged - and we're off (at arguably the same speed as if the turbo button were not engaged). What's the first piece of software we install once we're looking at a pristine desktop? Prince of Persia? Nope. Leisure Suit Larry? Wrong. We reach into what would become a stack of the ubiquitous AOL free trial disks, the scourge of mailboxes everywhere, and select disk that offers the most free minutes - this was before the amount of free minutes in the first month exceeded the amount of minutes in a month. 5000 free minutes - sounds good. A little while later, and with the help of a parent and her credit card, we are logged into our first chat room, the inane (and sometimes crass) musings of spectral users ascending the y-axis. It was amazing; it was horrible; it was enthralling. It was the precursor to chatroulette.com.

Suburbs of Philadelphia, 2010:

I throw my Macbook Pro down on the bed and flip it upon with a fluid, subconscious gesture, a move I can and have done in my sleep. It wakes instantly and I proceed to read tech news in the same jaded, unimpressed manner that comes part and parcel with immersion in a perpetual stream of amazing technological advances. One technology, posted by a student of mine, catches my eye: chatroulette.com. Apparently, this is a web site that allows visitors to video chat with a stranger selected at random. Strangely enough, this prospect feels terrifying - the concept of exposing myself, however anonymously, to a virtual Pandora's box of video streams. It seems so terrifying that I have to do it.

I navigate to the site and, against my better judgment, click "allow" to permit my web browser to enable my Mac's webcam. The preview window opens, and there I am. I briefly admire my digital reflection (I'm a vain jerk; whatever) and click "Play." The 10 seconds that the site spends looking for my random chat partner feels like an hour. All of a sudden, in the video window thoughtfully labeled "Stranger" (doesn't "stranger" conjure thoughts of abduction, like "don't talk to strangers?"), the granulated, pixelized image of what can only be described as a scarecrow appears. I see what appears to be a torso shot of a human shape, wearing jeans and a flannel shirt. The head is not visible. It is not moving. I don't think it's breathing; I don't think it's real. Silence. In the adjacent chat window, the message "that's 3 for 3" appears. I don't know what this means - and I exited before I could find out.

OK, let's try this one more time. I click "next," the button designated for respinning the metaphorical roulette wheel, and I get connected to someone else. He or she cancels the chat before the "stranger" cam even has a chance to render a single frame. Whatever. It occurs to me that literally anyone or any part of anyone could appear on my screen when my next random chat partner is chosen. So, after clicking "next" for a new partner, I position my mouse over the "x" to close my browser tab, just in case I have to make a hasty retreat to prevent any vile images from being inscribed on my retinas. My partner is chosen; the image renders; it's three college-aged guys sitting on a couch. They attempt to convince me (somewhat successfully [you win this round, strangers!]) that they are the creators of chatroulette. After a semi-pointless discussion, they admit to not being the creators, we end our conversation on a friendly note -- and my life is essentially unaltered from having talked to them.

After I closed the chat, I stared blankly at the screen for a while considering what had just happened. The realization hit me: this was the same visceral thrill that came from our first foray into the now-primitive AOL chat room, the thrill of not knowing what experiences you will encounter. These thrills are at a premium these days, as I have seen many new technologies and get further desensitized by the day. As such, I'm glad that I tried chatroulette. As with Russian Roulette, probability dictates that, eventually, given enough attempts, you will lose (though, in this case, loss encompasses being subjected to grotesque images). Knowing this, I will probably not press my luck again...

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