And all the worst and weirdest impulses that anonymity encourages are on full display, in living color. I came across groups of stoned college kids clustered in front of their screens ready to mock the next poor sap who popped in front of them.
I saw a guy lifting weights in his garage. I came across a talking Rubik's Cube and later, a startling stock shock image of a body hanging from a noose. I came across a guy wearing tampons as earrings. And, almost inevitably, people exposing themselves. A lot of them.
There were a few actual connections. A fratty-looking guy, who I thought for sure would "next" me instantly, was game to talk. "The site is awesome," he typed. Turns out he was a student at the University of Texas, putting off work on "a book report about 'savage inequalities' about disadvantaged school districts."
I also chatted with an art student at Temple University who expressed gratitude that I hadn't asked her to take off her shirt. When I told her I was a reporter, she asked me for an internship.
I talked to a young man in China who drives a sedan for a living. Here's a snippet of our instant messaging, as it appeared on the screen:
Stranger: I in China's Shanxi peace and good health
You: peace and good health to you
Stranger: Hoped that you will later have the opportunity to be able to come here to travel
You: me too
You: how do you know about Chatroulette?
Stranger: The friend tells me
You: yes. it is new here.
You: but i am happy to talk to talk with you
Stranger: me too
And then there was that French DJ. He said he found Chatroulette hilarious, at least when not confronted with unwanted glimpses of male anatomy. He was putting the finishing touches on his first single, he said, and encouraged me to become his fan on Facebook. I did.
In the end, finding an earnest conversation didn't prove impossible and I did, indeed, have a few interactions with people I almost certainly would never have met. There were nearly 21,000 people using the site when I logged on, a number that has grown virally since it went online with 300 users in December. As more people log on out of curiosity, it's hard to know whether the site will get more interesting.
But for now, one student at the University of Maryland summed it up best when I asked her what she thought of Chatroulette. "I think it's a little creepy," she admitted. "And I can't stay away."