Chatroulette is frame to much of what is terrible and much of what is wonderful about the Internet. It is the best of websites and it is the worst of websites. In case you’re one of the few people that reads cyberspace blogs but doesn’t know about the service, Chatroulette sets up a video, audio, or text chat session with a completely random stranger. Either party to the arrangement can skip to the next. That’s about it. Chatroulette does not require registration let alone age verification, although the site makes noises about having to be at least 16. You can change the display a little. There, I’ve described it.
Chatroulette takes many of the most interesting facets of the Internet and runs them into their no-frills, logical boundary. The Internet permits anonymous speech; Chatroulette can be completely anonymous. The Internet permits people to connect across diverse communities; Chatroulette practically forces this connection. It is deeply democratic in the sense that it makes no effort to privilege one type of content over another. The brainchild of a Russian child, reportedly hosted in Germany and written in English, Chatroulette is dramatically international. It connects the curious youth of Europe, to you and I, to the white-hatted frat boys of America, to all the weird anywhere shut-ins in between.
All these qualities make for a fascinating series of cultural moments. People of widely different backgrounds, ages, and intents are thrown together in a random jumble. Meanwhile, the scenarios Chatroulette sets up are amendable to easy capture. Thus, screenshots abound of reactions to the Chatroulette catman (“wtf r u? / a cat / …”), a particularly repetitive dog, and other assorted animal and non-animal moments. Chatroulette feels inevitable and yet surprising, like good art.
All these same features can make Chatroulette less fun and even a little dangerous. Most obviously, children can end up interacting with really awful adults and witnessing some disturbing situations. (If you’re thinking old men gratifying themselves sexually, you’re not being imaginative or dark enough.) Some of these things can happen on the Internet as it stands. The same children who don’t skip past raunchy or otherwise objectionable material on Chatroulette can also seek it out using a search engine if inclined. They can talk to some random man on Omegle. Your sons and your daughters are ever beyond your command. But there is clearly a difference between thinking your search might yield something “icky” and coming across a live scene for which you have no mental or emotional preparation.
I was recently asked by a journalist if Chatroulette violates any laws. I’m an Internet lawyer and I don’t know the answer. Surely broadcasting oneself masturbating, which by many accounts is a significant Chatroulette hobby, could run afoul of public indecency laws and/or spottily enforced (and constitutionally suspect) federal laws banning the use of electronic communications to harass. I suppose it's conceivable that, in some jurisdictions, successful use of the service in an effort to find unlawful material might trigger criminal liability, but this would very much depend on the level of intent required under the statute (ordinary curious users should have nothing to worry about). Chatroulette probably has reporting requirements if someone flags certain content, but federal law immunizes the service for what users do on it in most instances. Basically: Chatroulette would make a good cyberlaw exam.
Public outcry and the law, however, will take a backseat to a stronger force. Chatroulette will not remain in its current incarnation very long because, surely, Chatroulette will be commodified. It will be purchased by a big Internet company, filtered, gated, and released to fabulous success. (Or simply copied: look for a Facebook random video “chat in your network” feature). For now, however, it’s a little boundary pushing portal of digital art. Chatroulette reminds us that the Internet is like a muscle. It strengthens when torn.