Feb. 13, 2010 — -- Over the span of two hours this week, I had face time with a 16-year-old soccer fan in China, a French DJ producing his first record, snowed-in sorority girls in Minnesota and Maryland ... and a fat naked man having strenuously inappropriate relations with a stuffed raccoon. I was called a "homo," informed that I "suck" and told that I look like Animal from "The Muppet Show."
I was on Chatroulette, the latest phenomenon coughed up by the social Web.
Chat rooms are about as old as the Internet. Either strictly in text or, more recently, via video hookup, they've been used for years to solve problems, hold meetings, geek out over shared obsessions and, yes, sniff out anonymous sex.
Enter Chatroulette. Suddenly, this ancient Internet activity has been retooled for the social-media-obsessed 21st century.
Here's how it works: You don't need to sign on to anything, just go to the site with your webcam-equipped computer to find yourself face to face with a total stranger somewhere else in the world.
Don't like what you see? click a button and -- presto! -- you're staring at another total stranger (provided he or she doesn't "next" you first).
The idea, presumably, is that you'll start a conversation with someone you'd otherwise never have the opportunity to meet. Here the Internet comes close to achieving its potential as a connector and social equalizer; here is the great maw of mankind, setting differences aside and exploring their common humanity.
Here, also, are a lot of bored dudes in dorm rooms exposing themselves. Concerned parents would clearly do well to block the site from minors.
If the promise of Chatroulette, however implicit, is to connect strangers in spite of their differences, the practice is something else. For starters, it's incredibly stressful at first. Go to the site and there you are: you can see yourself and the person who's looking back at you. One of you might decide to type an instant message -- You: "What's up?" -- and initiate a talk.
More often than not, you'll be instantly rejected. It usually happens so fast you're astonished someone would have had enough time to come to some conclusion about you and decide they don't want to chat.
My first time on the service was fairly late at night. I found myself face to face with a sullen young man. I have no idea where he was from, because he took one look at me, grimaced and clicked "next." Another random stranger popped in front of me and something similar happened. I felt raw and exposed -- vulnerable to instant judgment, which usually came swiftly and without mercy: Next.
Males vastly outnumber females on the site; the young outnumber the old. (I'm 35, old enough to qualify for AARP on Chatroulette.) It's not surprising to discover that the creator, who had been unknown until today, revealed himself to the New York Times to be 17 years old -- and a high school student in Moscow.
"I created this project for fun," Andrey Ternovskiy wrote in an e-mail to the paper. "Everyone finds his own way of using the site. Some think it is a game, others think it is a whole unknown world, others think it is a dating service."
Chatroulette: Talk to Strangers, at Your Own Risk
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
Stranger: Chats with you is also very happy
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."