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A Trip Through ChatRoulette’s Spin City

One of my favorite parts about large metropolitan cities is public transportation. Yes, public transportation. Metros, buses, trams - the people watching they afford, from 9-to-5er’s nodding off with copies of Grisham novels in hand to gum-cracking, hand-holding teens, and even the occasional lechers… it’s one of city life’s ultimate social experiments. And chances are, they’re quietly analyzing me, too.

Now, give them laptops, a little privacy and strip them of their self-reserve (and, in some cases, their pants) and you’ve got ChatRoulette, the oft-blogged about closest thing to accidentally-on-purpose elbowing a stranger on the subway.

The tech isn’t that new. Just last year, Omegle, a text-only chat room that connects users at random, hit the net. It only took months before ChatRoulette creator Andrey Ternovskiy, a 17-year-old from Russia who once hacked into his school’s computer system a la Ferris Bueller to change test records, realized that he could do the same thing – but with webcams.

The program, which is as easily accessible as clicking “start,” taps into your computer’s webcam and shoots you into a proverbial Viewfinder of total strangers. No registration, age, or username required. It’s also caused worldwide media pandemonium (pandemonium!), furtive hacking attempts, and wooing from Google and Russian investors who drive in black cars with tinted windows.

So, of course, I totally had to try it.

Look, I may be your average-looking 20 something undergrad, but a respectable, street-smart young lady, nonetheless (sniff). This wasn’t something I was too keen on at first, especially not alone. But as a kid, I’d tossed one too many letters in a bottle off the Silver Strand’s shore with hopes of a Singapore or Australia return address. Some of my favorite movies of all time – Amelie, Run, Lola, Run – rely on storylines that touch on how we’re all interconnected. The concept of relating to someone totally random, yet continents away, sounded exhilarating.

However, coming screen to screen with the hirsute nether regions of a man who could barely type “sup,” because his hands, were, uh, occupied, was not exhilarating. It was pretty much the opposite. But exhibitionism seems to be the norm on ChatRoulette. (for more, visit the blog ChatRoulolz. Hilarious, but please don't read it in your cubicle.)

This NY Mag writer found 1 in 10 rouletters to be exhibitionists in some form or another, and in my 20-minute foray, I probably counted around 15. Two more made offers, via paper and Sharpie, for me to flash an unspecified (ok, very specified) body part (s). One even had a perma-sign taped up that demanded “t--s for Haiti!” (well, at least their heart was in the right place).

Another thing many bloggers have noted is the withering feeling of rejection the website breeds, the writer above calling it a “social anxiety nightmare.” If you’re “old,” (read: over 30), unattractive, not topless, or otherwise uninteresting, you’ll probably be nexte’d before you can type “ASL.”

But don’t take it personally. Maybe you’re just not their type. At least that’s what I told myself after being e-dissed 5 times (in a row!). Suddenly, we’re back to freshman year, when the object of my misguided hallway affections politely told me I was too tall for him. Sigh. This wasn’t turning out to be the fantastic voyeuristic odyssey I’d hoped for.

Interspersed between all of the creepers and rejection, however, were a few gems. Another 20-something young lass and I bonded over being “normal girls” amidst the chaos (though, for all I know, she succumbed to the seductions of the Sharpie). A guy in sunglasses and a fake mustache danced to “Barbie Girl” for a full 3 minutes. Even President Obama smiled at me from behind his laptop – at least his dime store mask did. And, no, I didn’t run in to the New York Times famous leopard man (see image) though I wish I had.

There's been a lot of talk about how addictive the site is, with some wasting hours hitting F9 to see who else is online (when I was on there last night, around 20,000 users were active). More are clicking on each day, and Ternovskiy recently confessed his plans to come to the States. But with the bloggerati suffering from a perpetual case of ADD, will its popularity last?

Time - and Twitter - will tell, but for now, bet on it.

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