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Archive for January, 2010

I feel compelled to make a blog post, partially because I have something to write about, partially because I haven’t written in a long time, and partially because my long-time adversary (and only person I’ve truly considered my peer), Ronny Khuri, has begun to blog, and we haven’t competed in months.

Ronny's straight-up a better artist than I am.

I’m unsure of when Ronny and I initiated our friendship of convenience, cooperation, and competition, but it’s certainly the subject of its own blog post (if not entire book, complete with Instant Message conversations, supplemental photographs, and predictions for the future). All I know is that I was definitely losing until 6th grade, in which we both opted to draw the same girl (Metal Gear Solid’s Meryl), and our homeroom teacher (the lovable and knowledgeable Mrs. Nabers) told us, definitively, that Ronny’s art-piece was superior. At which point I buckled under, pulled myself together, and have been winning ever since (with one minor blip involving Dota’s Lycanthrope). Also, here’s a link to Hunter Swain’s blog. It seems we’re all becoming amateur pundits, and that’s not necessarily a good thing.

So I figured I’d talk about Chatroulette. Well, I intended to introduce and describe Chatroulette to my less internet-savvy audience in my first real paragraph, but since there is no Wikipedia page for Chatroulette (this is very perplexing???), I guess I’m going to have to resort to writing some original content… which means it will be brief, but by no means cogent or complete.

Chatroulette is a website that automatically pairs its anonymous users in one-on-one text and webcam conversations. You only need an internet connection and a webcam (if you’d like to videochat). This idea has been tried in the past unsuccessfully, but I think where Chatroullete succeeds is its ease-of-use and “cam required” tickbox which guarantees your chat partner also has a webcam.

It’s called Chatroulette because the second you’re finished, bored, or horrified by your partner, you can simply click “Next” and be paired with another searching participant from the thousands online. An equally descriptive name would be “RandomChat” or “anorandomchat,” or “chrandonomoust,” but “roulette” carries certain exciting connotations, and just like its namesake, Chatroulette is simultaneously exciting, stupid, and a great way to waste a lot of time.

Like I had to ask...

It’s possible to both cycle through hundreds of users or simply talk to an individual for the entirety of a session. It’s a simple concept that took too long to implement fluidly on the internet, and is what I consider the logical progression of this media trend towards reality TV and “bottom-up” media production and communication…a sort of casual voyeurism in which you can experience every sort of of interaction, from the most shallow form of voyeurism to artsy or subversive productions, to a particularly in-depth interaction.

So, instead of writing a well-researched and developed article, I’ll make a blog post, just touching briefly on thoughts that initially come to mind without any sort of editorial process or attempt to link them together into a more cohesive work.

First, I should probably write some Henry Jenkins shit about whether the mechanics and design of a medium itself or the userbase determines the manner in which an interactive medium is used. Maybe add something about semiotics, messages, and sender-receiver relationships (encoding, interpretation, interpolation, etc.). So bear with me—my essays about this sort of stuff were garbled and nonsequiter in the first place (maybe because I often resorted to reading summaries, or summaries of summaries, of the concepts). Being out of college and in Thailand for 5 months hasn’t done my English any favors. So…like I said, it’s possible to use Chatroulette in a multitude of ways—is this by design or a product of the diverse mindsets that employ the site? Does anyone care?

Thailand...puts a lot of academic drivel in perspective.

Now, this post (like most journalism) is already heading towards idealizing an institution…experiencing a subject for a brief period, ignoring the facets that would turn off a fanbase, and writing an artsy, whimsical piece is a job that should be reserved for NPR segments. Make no mistake—Chatroulette is exactly what you would expect from anonymous human interaction and dialogues. Consider the negative effect anonymity has on internet boards like 4chan, then apply it to direct communication. I don’t want to lie and say something like “of course, there’s the occasional nudity, racism, and aggressive/antisocial behavior,” because of course these behaviors constitute the vast majority of interactions on a site like this. Left to their own devices, people express themselves in distasteful ways, especially when they’re given the opportunity to do so anonymously. This blog post should be categorized under “marginally insightful, predominantly self-serving.”

"Anonymous," perhaps less thought-provoking than many of its supporters believe.

Nor do I want to call something like this “a revolutionary and enlightening social/human experiment, representative of the nature of human interactions and chillingly elucidative of our underlying psyche” because any behavior you come across shouldn’t come as a surprise, given the aforementioned nature of anonymous interactions and general makeup of the internet-using population.

But there are occasions that make this site worth it, and it’s during these that Chatroulette becomes beautiful. I find gems in every session…like two under-educated (to put it lightly) US soldiers, lounging in their barracks in full military gear making fun of me for being a hippie until we realized we’re both in Bangkok. Or white-collar-looking guys you can let your hair down with and make fun of each other for being metalheads, then bun it back up and click “next.” Or coming face-to-face with your doppelganger/long-lost brother (“It’s like looking in a mirror.”), and telling him to keep up the good work. There are people I give a compliment to, then disconnect as soon as I see the first hint of their smiling response, and there are people that have done this to me. Some people find doing this just as satisfying as insulting someone then disconnecting…I certainly do.

  • Some people turn Chatroulette on ready to give you a show (however mundane)—letting you watch them order pizza, brush their teeth, or unpack their luggage after a vacation. And a portion of the userbase loves to watch these little productions, appreciates the absurdity of watching everyday narratives, or is genuinely interested in experimental voyeurism. In this sense, Chatroulette is a tool that renders all of its users amateur filmmakers, with total creative control over how they choose to present themselves (framing, lighting, action, tone). They direct the action on their own small-screen show.  It’s a great outlet for shameless physical humor. Many people masturbate–literally, artistically, or academically (as I’ve been known to do on this site). And there’s an audience for all three.
  • There’s an additional layer of media production/consumption when peoples start making anticipating and making videos about their interactions on chatroulette. They premeditate and design a live comedy, based on their actions and assumed reactions. This is more likely to be an unintentional nested product of the design of this sort of medium. You’ll have people evoking a particular response for the sake of a different audience’s entertainment.
  • Some people turn it on and forget it’s there–they browse the internet and write and game at their computer, unwittingly transmitting every twitch, insight, personal moment, nose-pick they commit. And some people watch this until they see something they feel they shouldn’t, and click “Next” out of respect. Others just cycle through the list, deliberately pausing only long enough for their partner to witness their reaction to their first impression.

As it turns out, people aren't nearly as impressed by their first impression of me as I would like to believe.

  • Often, for me, Chatroulette is like a 30-second detective show. You’re given clues and must work quickly to determine the identity of the individual. It’s the type of interaction Sherlock Holmes lives for. Sports pendants, those stack-able college beds, hoodie? You got yourself a college student. Look out their window (weather, light/dark?), determine what’s on their posters, tshirts, and paintings, listen to their accent, notice the small details in their dress…or just start guessing aloud and verify your hunches by watching their subtle reactions closely without the fear of committing a social faux-pas by actively staring/scrutinizing. If you’re successful, maybe you’ve found a common ground on which to reminisce/debate/attack/anything else that qualifies as interesting conversation. This is just one way to enjoy yourself on Chatroulette.
  • And there are those who keep hitting “next” until they find someone they consider worthy of a deep conversation. Anonymity has proven useful in in the past in terms of seeking out advice. Forums designed to help people cope with any number of problems are appealing because sometimes, questions are too personal to be attached to one’s identity. People can speak freely, fearlessly, and often, intelligently. If they happen to be wearing a gold masquerade mask and white curly wig while you and he argue eloquently, politely, and respectfully, then so be it. This, too, is a great way to enjoy yourself on this site – develop an argument, attack an opponents, speak freely, or be converted. Maybe help someone with something you’ve had experience with in in the past.

M"m"M- "You got a little something under your nose there, Sig." SF-"Actually, most of the insults you direct towards yourself on this site are thinly-disguised attempts to fish for compliments...and you're totally oblivious when you do it. It's a textbook plea for insecure individuals. " M"m"M-Actually, every discovery you came up with turned out to be a fanciful, coke-induced rant and no-one in the field takes you seriously.

  • Another thought that came to mind was the use of a client like Chatroulette as a powerful tool for Social Psychology research. It’s not a perfect model, but one similar could be used in order to collect lots of data on first impressions—one could manipulate how a subject presented themselves (clothing, expression, smile,  camera angle, lighting, etc.) and record how long an average conversation lasted before the partner opted to click “next.” What are the rates of rejection for individuals that choose to smoke on video? This sort of data is valid in both same-sex and intersex interactions because the factor of anonymity and the lack of repercussions for shunning a partner. Or there could be research on how long it takes for individuals engaged in a face-to-face conversation before they feel guilty about clicking “next,” without saying goodbye. A study comes to mind about how the manner in which avatars interact online (turning a back to a teammate, running away, killing, etc.) has real-world implications on their controller’s feelings. But I can’t find it, so you have to take my word for it.

Nope, not this “Avatar.” Well…sort of.

Anyways. I can’t tell you what it’s like. Try it for yourself. Find someone with similar interests, find someone with different ones. Enjoy anonymous interaction. It’s good fun.

Question of the Post (QOtP): What is the optimum order in which to drink two light beers and one full-flavored beer?

PS. For those of you who were reduced to shambles when my PictureBag went down…It’s back up!

PPS. Watch Training Day again.

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