Lock up your daughters and bolster their surf-control settings: the latest web fad is here and, before long, it's bound to get more responsible journalists than me writing scare stories about its potential abuses.
"Chat Roulette" (that's Chatroulette.com, people) has seen its user numbers shoot up to more than 10,000 from less than 500 at the turn of the year. The premise is utterly straightforward. Like some bastard child of Skype and StumbleUpon, Chat Roulette drops you into a face-to-face conversation, via your webcam, with one random stranger after another, at the click of a mouse.
There are existing chatrooms, notably Omegle.com, that randomly pair users from all over the world, but Chat Roulette's anonymous founders seem to be the first to have introduced video to the experience. It seems astounding that it's taken so long for someone to come up with something so simple – and the site itself looks like it was indeed designed in the dark ages of the internet. There's a box for your webcam feed, a box for the strangers' webcam feeds, a box for instant messaging, and a button that says "Next". That's pretty much it.
Most Chat Roulette exchanges last only a fleeting few seconds: the time it takes the stranger to see you, decide on the evidence of your face or your wallpaper that you're worth no more of their time, and click onto their next chat. I'm warned that approximately one in every 10 clicks will bring you up against penises in various states of tumescence. But approximately one in every 20 will produce an enriching exchange. One friend found himself in a conversation with a naval officer, who'd logged on from his base somewhere in the Middle East; another had a short play performed for her by two Spanish aspiring theatricals.
Early Chat Roulette stars supposedly included a Swedish artist who'd sketch portraits of everyone he talked to, and another man – location unknown – who could be found perpetually masturbating into a green salad. Since there are no age restrictions on the site, one friend of a friend found himself holding up a perfectly decent conversation with a 13-year-old girl. It was only when her mother walked into her bedroom that he wondered how, exactly, the poor woman would feel about finding her daughter talking to a strange man on the internet. (Well, it beats finding her talking to a semi-erect penis.) He quickly pressed "Next".
Of course, once you've persuaded someone to stick around for longer than a couple of seconds, it's a lot harder to let them go – and their rejection feels like a more considered judgement on your charisma, or lack thereof. As you see them reaching for their mouse you want to cry, "come back! COME BAAAACK!" But on Chat Roulette you can never go back. You can only go on – to the next lettuce-lover or lonely seaman. Soon you start clicking away from your new acquaintances with similar indifference.
When you know there'll be no consequences, it's also very easy to start getting personal, even mean. Just ask your average anonymous message board commenter. In this case, your conversation partner may be able to see your face (or another body part), but chances are they're not even in the same country. On my first foray into the depths of Chat Roulette, the vast majority of my exchanges were with people in jumpers looking bored, like me, their faces glowing blue in the screen's sad reflection. So, to spice things up, I resorted to snarkily complimenting one fellow user on his ridiculous facial hair. Then I asked a man in a cardigan whether he was planning to take his clothes off. The goatee guy was game. The man in the cardie clicked away.
I'm still anticipating my first Spanish performance artist or Tarot card reader – I hear there's one of them, too – to give me a truly elevating 10 minutes of talk. But I'm optimistic. Surfing the site is like waiting for your favourite music video on MTV; it's amazing how much dross you can passively endure until you get to the good stuff. Chat Roulette is no Facebook or Twitter or YouTube. It's probably just this year's "Two Girls One Cup", primed to follow the trajectory of all internet fads: a firework burst with a fast fade and a few tales of people getting burned along the way.
Until somebody hones the experience – makes it safe, organised, boring – Chat Roulette will remain a gloriously mad concoction of pornography, hipsters doing cool and/or weird stuff and lonely people looking for company. A bit like the rest of the internet.