You've heard of ChatRoulette, right? That new video-chatting Web site that—according to the technorati, and our very own Cliff Kuang—is one of the freakiest things that's ever emerged from the annals of the Internet? The one with the the catpeople and the weird men wearing lingerie and oh my God, is that the cast of Jersey Shore?!
That's where I spent roughly an hour goofing off—excuse me, "doing research"—on a recent Saturday night, alongside several friends. And much to my surprise, the freakiest thing I stumbled into was a revelation: In spite of the media circus it's spawned, ChatRoulette isn't actually a freakshow; it's an amusing, addictive social media tool that, with a few basic tweaks, could have a very legitimate future.
But first, let's discuss the naked people. Because ChatRoulette naysayers just love to discuss the naked people, as if the site's only function is to connect unassuming Web users with unwanted pornography. Admittedly, that's part of the ChatRoulette experience: Any time large groups of people interact, especially on the Internet, there are bound to be a couple of nuts. (Remember AOL's early horndog chatrooms?) But it's a part that can be easily "nexted," laughed at, and subsequently forgotten (the same approach works with a flasher on the subway, FYI).
Several days after my ChatRoulette session, what's stuck with me are basic, human moments: gesturing to a Chinese couple who didn't speak any English; blasting a Miley Cyrus song to cheer up a crying teen in Canada; learning a ChatRoulette drinking game from one group of strangers, and then playing it with another.
It's these types of interactions—reminiscent of the early days of AOL, when the Internet seemed downright magical—that make me believe ChatRoulette has a real future. Today, most of my online interactions are with a preselected group of "friends" or "followers." Using ChatRoulette to let loose with the masses was hilarious, refreshing—and, at times, enlightening.
The idea of "nexting" is gaining ground—it arguably began as "scan" function on '80s car stereos and is now the central idea behind Google FastFlip, which lets users "next" screenshots of news content. ChatRoulette's 17-year-old founder has a ways to go before he can monetize the site, but it's not hard to see how businesses could use ChatRoulette, or a service like it, for some sort of guerilla marketing campaign. Or imagine a filter or portal into ChatRoulette made up of members who'd been screened or approved for "safe nexting." Tweentastic.
Until then, maybe one of the most amazing things about the social media outlet is that it became the centerpiece of a real life in-person social interaction between me and several of my friends.
Also, it's already being endorsed by Ashton Kutcher.