Friday, March 12, 2010

Chatroulette!: Wild West or Carousel of Progress?

Despite reports and ample evidence that Chatroulette! is full of predators and Jon Stewart's take that it's just a passing fad everyone will try once, the new media deserves one step further in consideration. What we have with Chatroulette! is simply two-way, homemade Youtubes. But it also offers windows onto the world. I can remember as a child visiting Disney's Carousel of the Progress, a ride where animatrons explain technology and the future had screens that allowed you to talk to anyone anywhere. So now we are here, in the future when we can meet anyone in the world through a screen. It's literally a global party. We are finally seeing who else is online at the same time and it is not a very pretty picture! We are finding a world full of exhibitionists, voyeurs and lonely souls seeking legitimate connections. This is not Chatroulette!, this is the internet and the world at large.

Normally behind the veil of our own individual screens, we hide out and dissappear into separate dreamworlds called websites. But if the internet is our collective conscious, this is our group therapy session. We are unveiling ourselves, seeing some of the worst first. After finally giving in to a 1 hour test session, I can say there are some clothed people on Chatroulette! I met an Oxford student who taught me about medicine and his Muslim faith and two Parisian kids on semester exchange in Madrid. Like anywhere in the real or virtual world, good and evil go down.

Chatroulette! is however a primitive form of the future. What we get now is a white screen with little boxes and a white typespace. Someday soon there will be better sound and resolution, it will be covered with ads and linked to Facebook. You will read of Chatroulette! crimes and Chatroulette! lawsuits, Chatroulette! marriages and Chatroulette! babies and probably some reality show spinoff. Then there will be less offensive forms narrowed by subcultures who only want to rotate through similar types like Blackroulette and Christiancarousel. But for now, and probably not for very long, anything goes. This is a risk but also history, a time when this type of free unmonitored media is legal and totally gratuitous. For this reason, we must ask how to use Chatroulette! proactively for good, for good socially, economically, politically, educationally, informatively, in any manner other than passive acceptance.

In the 1980's Disney's Carousel of Progress predicted a future family celebrating a birthday via screens that linked them to distant relatives. The 2010 version shows a future family celebrating Christmas in person all together but wearing masks that show them different virtual realities. And you thought Chatroulette! was socially awkward.

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