Random cam site offers a revealing look at the Internet user base

There seem to be two main requirements for a social-based internet site to catch on with the online public: it should do one task very simply, and it should attract enough users to reach a critical mass.

Chatroulette.com is not a particularly great site, neither is it a useful one. It will probably never change the world, but in its own way, it may be the site that offers the best microcosm of how the web brings people together.

Before going any further, let me state clearly that Chatroulette.com is not suitable for children. It’s not for us to say how parents should monitor their child’s online activity and whether it’s better to use human supervision or automated filters, but let us simply repeat for your information that Chatroulette.com is not suitable for children.

So what does the site do? It’s simple. You hook up your webcam (or get ready to type if you don’t have one), click one button, and you are connected to another user at random. If either party wants to end the conversation, they hit F9. You can then be reconnected to another person if desired. And, erm, that’s it.

For those with cameras, it appears to work like a particularly harsh form of speed dating: never mind three minutes, most people will be lucky to last three seconds before they race their chat partner to be the first to move on. Something in the region of 10 percent of users are men exposing their genitals, so if that’s going to offend you, steer well clear. The rest are a bizarre mix of drunken mixed-gender student groups in college dorms, and solo men frantically hitting F9 in the hope of finding a woman.

But what makes the site slightly addictive is the occasional surprise: a man wearing the mask from V for Vendetta, people dancing, and users who have unconvincingly rigged their cams to show footage of Homer Simpson sat at a computer. (These are just examples I’ve seen myself; the web is full of outlandish screenshots from the site, though it’s hard to know which, if any, are genuine.)

What is genuinely brilliant about Chatroulette is that, because it is simply a middle-man, it can have 40,000 visitors at once with presumably very little server load, and appears to be based around a comparatively simple piece of code. While the stream of erect penises may well be off-putting to advertisers, it’s still amazing the creators haven’t yet added any ads to the site.

Now if GeeksAreSexy readers with cams want to use the site to talk to strangers, be my guest. If readers think the whole site sounds ridiculous and have better things to do, that’s a sign of good judgment. But for those without cams who might be tempted to kill some time by simply clicking through cams at random, I have an appeal to you.

Let’s use Chatroulette for good. If you type quickly enough (the trick is to use cut and paste the moment you are connected to a user with a cam), the random stranger appearing on your screen may read your message before clicking away. That gives you one shot, so use it wisely. “Hi!” and similarly lame variants are out. Saying something shocking? Forget it, these folks will be numb to the core.

Instead, share some knowledge with them. Hit them with a piece of trivia in the style of the one shown in the picture above (“The piece of plastic at the end of a shoelace is called an aglet.”) I promise you, you will be amazed at the reaction. You’ll get the occasional wannabe gangster who offers a two-digit critique, but in most cases you’ll see a moment of confusion followed by a surprisingly high proportion of smiles, and an equally unlikely ratio of polite “Thank you for telling me.”.

Let’s do it. Let’s spread our geek-fueled knowledge, one cam user at a time.

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