Illustration by Kenny Srivijittakar.
Illustration by Kenny Srivijittakar.

If we had a penny for every time our respective mothers told us not to talk to strangers, I’m pretty sure we’d have none. Our mothers were never the type to embrace American turns-of-phrase, or in this case, warnings — which might be why we are the ideal audience for Chat Roulette, the new craze hitting the web with the force of a hundred blogs and the power of a thousand chat rooms.

Created in November 2009 by a 17-year-old Moscow high school student, Andrey Ternovskiy, is a website where once you arrive, you’re greeted by a cesspool of sexy singles, a plethora of bored teenagers, and far too many college students looking for a new medium of procrastination.

Once you click “play” — curious terminology that tips the site more in the direction of game-playing than networking — you spiral down a rabbit hole of characters that you can see and hear with the help of a mic and webcam.

But of course they’re not characters, they’re real people. That’s the allure of a site that requires no registration, no log-in, no password, nothing but a cam and mic and a desire to immerse yourself in random connections.

The suspense builds each and every time you push the “next” button, which disconnects you from your current camera partner and connects you with a new stranger: will I meet a group of 12-year-olds, or will I run into a Jonas Brother? Am I looking at a flesh-colored body suit, or is that a… oh, never mind. In the world of Chat Roulette, anything is possible.

A masquerade of people throw all inhibitions — and underpants — out the door because they know that with the click of a mouse, they will probably never see you again. Within two weeks the estimated user count skyrocketed from 5,000 to 50,000. The chances of running into a Roulette-ex are slowly getting lower and lower.

Yet the site has an odd feeling of faddishness embedded in its digital bloodstream — a flash-in-the-pan quality that just feels as if it’s teetering on an expiration date. Some have called it the future of networking, but that title, meaningless in a rapidly evolving techno-society, is ill-deserved.

What it does do is speak to our desire for simplicity. In an era of mechanical overhaul, when even books are becoming obsolete, the myth of the digital frontier and its ability to unite us from across the country — hell, the globe — not only still exists, but also is oddly exciting.

Most people have no idea what they’re getting themselves into — a labyrinth of people, places, and penises from all over the world that will keep you glued to the computer screen for hours on end. One minute you’re making eyes at a handsome Brazilian and the next, you are suddenly acquainted with a weathered bratwurst in Germany. With no moderator and no filter, it truly feels as if anything goes — the first rule of Chat Roulette is you don’t talk about Chat Roulette.

Yet we still find ourselves curiously fascinated by a website that has been manifested out of our sudden desire for voyeurism at a mass level. At times, the rawness of what you’re witnessing is overwhelming. We had a short conversation once with a man in orange. It wasn’t until we spotted an armed guard in the background that we realized the man was in jail.

But that realness is what makes Chat Roulette endlessly fascinating. Its goal isn’t to oversimplify our “interests” or “activities,” dumbing our personalities down to a few tag-able anecdotes. Maybe our goal for the digital revolution was never to friend our friends, or limit our thoughts to 140 characters. Maybe all we ever wanted was a good conversation.