Those who know me well know that I am by nature a positive person, especially when it comes to technology and things internet. On this occasion I find I am completely negative in writing about a startup that has recently begun to gain popularity but which has the potential to draw adverse publicity like few others. The Chatroulette service enables you to make video connections with random users worldwide. Though it advises that you must be over 16 years of age to use the service there is no age verification mechanism nor terms of service or other quasi protection means. The splash does state that
Chatroulette does not tolerate broadcasting obscene, offending, pornographic material and we will have to block users who violate these rules from using our service
though there is only a Report button that needs to be activated without any indication of what happens next. In addition the speed with which interactions can take place militates against having any confidence in this procedure.
In the interests of finding out how the service operates I opened up Chatroulette, pressed the play button and enabled my camera to be greeted by a rapidly changing series of “Connections” all of which were of highly dubious quality.
Most fellow users quickly hit their Next button many before their camera image was activated. Amongst the thirty or so users who did show themselves the overwhelming majority were individual males, I saw only three females fleetingly. On a couple of occasions there were two people on camera whilst others displayed handwritten messages. One person waved at the camera and another wrote ‘hi’ in the chat before disappearing immediately. All in all this was quite inoffensive and ultimately quite pointlessly boring. What was more confronting were the four males who came on screen exposing themselves and in one case masturbating.
Pornography is one thing but usually it is flagged as such. In this case the randomness of the connections ensured that I the user has no control over the initial experience. The only recourse was to hit the “Next” button, or even better not use this service.
Alas the stats suggest that the site is going viral, from the 300 users in December it now attracts close to 30000 users at any time. Other commentators, NetFamilyNews, New York News , The New York Times, (which carries an interview with the 17 year old creator of the site) and cNet have reported on their experiences using the site and offer other perspectives on the potential problems associated with the site.
At least most smartphones aren’t equipped with a webcam equivalent yet so Chatroulette is restricted to computers though it is almost certain that few parents would have any knowledge of what the site entails. Again the best advice for parents is to seek to engender behaviours in their offspring that are ethical and responsible so that the children are not attracted to sites of this nature.