channel surfing through humanity

I spent an unreal amount of time last night flipping through ChatRoulette. I was bored and avoiding a paper, and everyone had been talking about this thing which was going to corrupt the youths or something. So I fired it up and off I went.

And wow.

ChatRoulette embodies a great deal of what I love about the internet.

Here are some things that happened to me in the few hours I spent on ChatRoulette last night:

-I made two friends (a chef in Milwaukee and an engineer in Brussels)
-Someone sang me a song
-Someone drew me a picture
-A longstanding debate was settled (whether or not eating hair was cannibalism) with the help of a cute girl and her mustachioed posse in Minneapolis
-An engineer introduced to me all his desk toys, and I introduced him to mine
-A group of education grad students in the Netherlands and I compared book collections
-I met a paralyzed boy in New York who typed, rather speedily, with a long stick affixed to a head brace

And there were lots more little random encounters, tiny conversations that didn’t go far. I love the randomness of it. I love the tiny glimpses of people flickering through my screen, and that I’m traveling through theirs too, skipping around the world like a stone on the surface a river. The whole thing just seems so damn magical. I’m here and I’m also there, and then I’m yet another there again. It’s a potent, raw example of the internet’s ability to simply connect people. Click Play, and suddenly you are staring at someone on the other side of the planet. What are you going to talk about?

danah boyd has an excellent blog about ChatRoulette and the “moral panic” it’s engendering. Highly recommended reading on this topic. She points out that as it exists now, ChatRoulette is too transgressive to be around for very long. I wonder what it will turn into, and I hope the raw connective power it embodies will not be dissipated in the name of some hyper-protective moral code.

I’m waving my little flag in support of the randomness of humanity.

addendum: There’s a new exhibit near the Mollusk Section at the Carnegie Museum of Natural History, where I spend most of my Thursdays. It’s on population explosions, human and otherwise. The numbers are literally incomprehensible. It’s all you can do to stare at the world population counter on the wall, ticking up a few individuals every second, and not be terrified or reduced to gibbery jelly on the floor. The internet was supposed to allow us to reach out from where we are and touch the sheer masses of people and cultures and information that are out there. As it stands now, though, huge swathes of the internet are instead narcissistic echo chambers of white, Western tech/thought. While I’m not going to argue that ChatRoulette is the solution to the domination of Western culture on the net, it is refreshing in that it just doesn’t care. It rudely kicks you out of your comfort zone and intrudes you into someone else’s life and it doesn’t matter who or where that person is. If they’re on the site, they’re fair game. It’s a hint of those roiling, unpredictable masses of everything outside the front door.

I say often that the internet is fundamentally a conversation, and you’re either interested in the content of the conversation (ie: IP law) or who is involved (ie: security). The content potential has, for me, just gotten a lot more interesting.