On a Monday night in Park Slope, a crowd gathers in the hope of understanding the site that may well be the dark, shriveled heart of the Internet: the ever-mysterious ChatRoulette.
Whereas other websites thrive on making permanent connections with friends (Facebook), colleagues (LinkedIn) or celebrities (Twitter), ChatRoulette emphasizes the opposite: the temporary. As an academic paper (yes, really) stated earlier this week, the phenomenon presents "a probabilistic community: a community shaped by a platform which mediates the encounters between its users by eliminating lasting connections between them."
The elimination of lasting connections seems to nullify a lot of social constraints. Visitors to the site should be prepared for rejection (being 'nexted') and weird, if not horrific, images. Add to this the site's murky creation story (it was apparently created by some kind of 17-year-old Russian savant) and the website becomes creepily mystical. It's one of the few websites I know that many people are actually too frightened to visit. It's just too creepy.
In the basement of Brooklyn's Union Hall, patron hoped to quell the fear through safety in numbers. The night was billed as a "social experiment," although the $2 PBRs makes it less of an academic exercise and more of an alcohol-fueled freak show. Before the show starts, one organizer, Jen, pointed out that though they were not the first to come up with the idea of using ChatRoulette in a group setting, it was generally an individual pursuit. "We're taking it public versus private," she says.
A laptop was set up on stage, with audience members taking turns to man the keyboard, the larger audience visible to the camera over their shoulder. By 9pm there are a few dozen spectators in the audience. The average age probably fell somewhere closer to 30 than ChatRoulette's typical 18-24 year old audience, and a surprising number of women showed up, beyond the typically male ChatRoulette user group.
Many in the crowd had never used ChatRoulette before, either through ignorance or fear, and the concept made them giddy. Johnny, a writer and photographer who sometimes works at Union Hall, is one such ChatRoulette virgin. He had no idea what to expect, but predicts he'd see "something really nasty."
Another newbie, Heather, came for a couchsurfing social event but went downstairs for the "far more intriguing" ChatRoulette event. "A lot of people look for that anonymity of meeting people," she says, "You can act like the person you've always wanted to be."
For the most part, the "probabilistic community" of ChatRoulette is neutered by an audience. At Union Hall, teenage boys were in awe of the crowd and often stayed to chat amiably. Even ChatRoulette's greatest enigma, the chronic masturbators, were taken down a peg with scorecards and the inevitable laughter brought on by alcohol, mixed company and penises.
But most curious -- as the crowd roars in unison at the projector, jeering or applauding their connections and drinking merrily -- is the way the anti-community of ChatRoulette can give birth to a real-life community.
The connections made in Park Slope seemed reassuringly genuine, perhaps not even temporary. When an anonymous masturbator types "OMG EUGENE MIRMAN", the name of the professional comedian currently manning the laptop at that point, Mirman does a lap of the room in hysterics, patted on the back and high-fived by well-wishers.
Will the excitement of group ChatRoulette live on? Mirman, for one, has his doubts. "I certainly don't think it will be as exciting," he says. "People might be using it but it won't nearly have the same level of frenzy to it."
"I hope people won't be typing my name as they rub their penis into the camera," Mirman continued, before pausing and smiling, "But you know what? To each his own!"