ChatRoulette.com: Anonymous Intimacy and Why We Say Stupid Things Online

Disclaimer: Let me start out by saying that you should absolutely positively not visit www.chatroulette.com. It is most certainly NSFH (not safe for holiness). <~~ lame Christian joke.

What is Chatroulett.com?

For the past few months, Internet news sites have been reporting about chatroulette.com (wikipedia link), a website created by 17-year-old Russian student Andrey Ternovskiy. The idea of the site is simple and brilliant – all it does is randomly pair you with another website visitor with whom you can text and/or video chat.

ChatRoulette.com as a Medium

If you’ve read any of my posts, you know that I’m not terribly interested showing how people use technology for “good content” or “bad content.” We all know that some people will use technology to do bad things (consider yourself warned!), and others will do creative, interesting things like this guy who plays piano for visitors or the live Ben Folds concert, and still someone else will do evangelism on it.

What I’m more interested in is what kind of human behavior the medium itself tends to produce in people. ChatRoulette.com is very interesting as a medium since it recalls the anonymity of the early internet days, but by replacing text with webcams it also allows a deeper level of intimacy. However, this intimacy is very temporary since visitors can quickly press “next” and move on to the next person.

This video does a great job of showing what happens on the site and the overall behavior of its users (please note there is some graphic language toward the end). The video is interesting because it attempts to show the behavior of humans as a whole:

How Did We Get Here?

Almost every study on technology and media makes a big point of shifts in society that happens when cultures move from oral to print to digital, and I think ChatRoulette.com offers us a clear example of these kinds of shifts.

People in an oral culture have no technological means to record their thoughts, ideas, and stories, so they are forced to share with one another everything they know. This creates a close-knit, interdependent, emotionally connected society where everyone in the tribe is reliant on one another.

When print comes along, communication changes drastically. A writer must to be in isolation to encode his thoughts into letters on a page, and a reader must also be in isolation in order to decode those letters back into ideas. Print, as a medium regardless of content, shifts communication from face-to-face to isolation. This allows ideas to be shared across time and space without ever knowing or seeing the person who wrote them. In contrast to oral cultures which are very tribal in nature, print cultures tend to be more individualistic since their communication takes place in isolation.

In digital world, these two cultures are merged into something new. While print allowed us to be emotionally distant, images reconnect us emotionally as in an oral culture. Yet this connection remains physically distant as was in a print culture. With something like ChatRoulette.com, we can watch each other type and chat in real time (somewhat like orality), but we can still be anonymous at the same time (like print). We can be connected in time and space with web cams (as in orality), and yet be physically distant (as with print).

Sitting in front of a computer with people on the other end, we are both intimate and anonymous at the same time.

Why We Misbehave Online

While ChatRoulette.com may be an extreme case of “anonymous intimacy,” I think it can show us why we some times say and do things we regret online. Most of us know that when we’re in social situations we’re supposed to hold back some of the negative things we think about people. We’re supposed to wait until we’re alone to write them in a journal ro turn them over to the Lord.

The crazy thing about the digital age is that it merges the “journal” with the “social situation.” Sitting in front of a computer we feel like we’re alone and like our thoughts are safe, but we’re really in public where everyone can view what we say. Because we can’t feel the physical presence 0f the person we’re email or replying to, we say things we would only say in our cars driving to work alone.

This technological situation (sitting in front of a computer) encourages us to behave in a way that’s different from either a social situation or a journal. We feel deeply emotionally connected and yet unguarded and alone at the same time. Some people are able to consistently control this, but I would guess that all of us can point to a time where we didn’t hold back and wondered, “Why did I write that?” Now you know why :)

Guarding Our Hearts and Words

I simply don’t think it’s good enough for Christians to say, “You shouldn’t do bad things online.”

I believe we must look at how the technology itself sets us up for doing stupid things. It’s not that we blame the technology, but that we attempt to understand how the nature of a medium and our own proclivity toward sin uniquely interact.

ChatRoulette.com is useful towards this end because it is a microcosm of the Internet itself.  When we are sitting in front of our computers and on our mobile phones, we must continually remind ourselves that we are never alone. From a technological standpoint, we are connected to around 4.2 billion IPv4 addresses. Even more importantly from a theological standpoint, God is always present with us and for those of us “in Christ” we are deeply and intimately connected to God.

Jesus’ name Emmanuel literally means “God with us,” and we must act both online and offline in light of this reality. Whether its email, texting, twitter, or even just Google.com, we must not believe the lie that we’re alone and what we do doesn’t really matter to anyone else.

This week, imagine every action you do online as if it were happening in front of a real live person. What might be different?

Published by

John Dyer

In my day job, I work at Dallas Theological Seminary, and at night I write Bible software for countries whose leaders could be called "overlords." This one time, I wrote a book about technology and Christian faith. You can find out more about what I'm up to at http://j.hn/.

11 thoughts on “ChatRoulette.com: Anonymous Intimacy and Why We Say Stupid Things Online”

  1. I know that there are certain authors who I feel “emotionally connected” to even though I only know them through their texts. But this causes me to question what you mean by the phrase “emotionally connected.” Could you explain? And more specifically, I’m wondering why you say images, but not print, can cause people to be emotionally connected.

  2. I watched the Ben Folds thing the other day, that was genius and amazing.

    It is interesting to see the progression from Instant Messanger A/S/L to now doing that but through video chat. When I was in JR high that is what everyone did. The roulette of things was to go around and see who you could find. It has really progressed. Reminds me of sexting and how that phenom has taken off in some way or another. I wander what the implications will be for all of this as well.

    I think one thing that it can do is lead to a longing desire that is never satisfied. Because of the limits that are placed inside the online world and social media there is still a huge part of intimacy (for arguments sake) that is severally lacking. I can imagine that after using this tool for a while it would just get old.

    Good connection and post.

  3. John, I think you have highlighted something significant in your conclusion – in sitting in front of a computer we are both anonymous and intimate at the same time. And this helps to explain the way we behave online.

    During a recent talk I heard about online behaviour, the speaker commented that in our online activity we each need to decide how “promiscuous” we want to be – by this he meant how much of ourselves we want to give away or reveal to others, or how much we want to keep private. We make these sort of choices all the time online.

    I think another factor relevant to our online behaviour is the whole concept of having an audience that the internet provides – particularly things like youtube, IM and facebook. I think the availability of a mostly distant, disconnected audience is a big motivator of online behaviour, particularly for adolescents.

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