Believe it or not, people on ChatRoulette will disconnect from “America’s Internet Sweetheart”© Helen A.S. Popkin, even if she's wearing an adorable fuzzy hat with bunny ears.
Believe it or not, people on ChatRoulette will disconnect from “America’s Internet Sweetheart”© Helen A.S. Popkin, even if she's wearing an adorable fuzzy hat with bunny ears.
Helen Popkin
updated 2/23/2010 12:29:00 PM ET 2010-02-23T17:29:00

Last Friday night I had the most awesome conversation on ChatRoulette. And I only had to click through five naked dudes to get there!

If you’re hip to the new video chat site currently in digerati vogue, you’d be quick to congratulate me on the small number of male junk endured, as well as my fortuity in finding someone to talk to. If you’re only hearing about ChatRoulette now, take my word for it — 5:1 is an amazing stat.

What’s more, you’ll be hearing a lot about ChatRoulette in the coming weeks as media types and child protection groups debate the site’s place on the Internet, and the chat hits the fan. (Won't somebody please think of the children?!) But that doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll want to try it.

“It’s sad,” wrote my partner in my aforementioned ChatRoulette conversation, referring the plethora of naked and semi-naked dudes demonstrating their … um … wares.  

“It’s sadly expected,” I typed in response.

According to a recent interview, ChatRoulette’s reportedly 17-year-old creator, Russian computer hobbyist Andrey Ternovskiy, envisioned the site as a friendly, free-to-use social media outlet allowing people to chat with strangers from all over the globe. Up to 50,000 people use the site at one time — and more may be trying. The site had trouble loading on Monday.

It's a video version of the random chat site Omegle, launched early last year. All you need is an Internet connection, and it’s good if you have a Web cam — though not all users do. Once on the site, you click the link, and in less than a minute, you’re connected with a random stranger whose video window appears on the screen, right above yours. You can then chat via text, or talk if each user is sound-enabled.

That some choose to use it as a low-fi version of “The Circuit” — the instant sex partner search in the movie “Logan’s Run” — just means this is the Internet.

“You don’t see many women exposing themselves,” said my awesome chat partner.

“It’s not really in the female nature,” I responded. And in the six to seven hours I’ve logged on ChatRoulette, I haven’t seen any live ladies exposing themselves — just some ads featuring naked ladies available on other Web sites.

Image: A train in Norway and Charlie the Rescue Pug have an awesome conversation on ChatRoulette.
A train in Norway and Charlie the Rescue Pug have an awesome conversation on ChatRoulette.
Certainly naked ladies do pop up in the growing ChatRoulette screen-grab galleries on the Internet. Thanks to these galleries, ChatRoulette is rapidly becoming a meme you can enjoy without having to actually experience it — kind of like “Two Girls, One Cup” and “The Jersey Shore.” The YouTube reaction videos and the "Saturday Night Live" sketches are hilarious even if you’ve never seen the source material. In fact, it’s better that you don’t.

Unfortunately, in my ChatRoulette explorations, I did stumble upon the repulsive “Two Girls, One Cup.” Someone chose to use the legendary gross-out porn clip as stand in on his or her (probably his) video feed. I also saw a lot of ads for Web sites where live nude girls were guaranteed.

No doubt that’s what a good portion of young boys using the site are hoping to see for free on ChatRoulette.

The site’s terms state that you must be at least 16 to use the site (yeah, right). I’ve come across seven sets of boys who appeared to be younger than 12. Most were in groups of two or three, but some appeared on screen alone. Most disconnected immediately, though one filled the screen with repeated all-capped “F&*$ YOU!,” and disconnected when I wrote, “You seem angry.”

I’ve also seen three times as many groups of giggling adolescent girls — let’s face it, as a slumber party game, “Light as a Feather, Stiff as a Board” has nothing on ChatRoulette.

“Chat Roulette is also a veritable cornucopia of imagery of gloomy attic bedrooms, hopelessly cluttered dorm rooms, gigantic collectible displays, and bad pajamas,” my awesome and anonymous chat partner wrote. "Men and boys seem to outnumber women about 100:1.The proportion of utter morons to insightful people is, sadly, similar.”

My awesome chat partner said he’d logged around 18 hours on ChatRoulette, and in my comparatively short time, I agree with his assessment. What’s more, image after poorly-lit image of people, eyes glassy and jaws slack, can be more depressing than all the dude junk you have to wade through to find them.

At least on Facebook and Twitter, you don’t have to look at the people you don’t really know. And that’s another thing. There’s a familiar vulnerability on ChatRoulette. Some who’ve used the site compare it to the early days of the Internet where you jump in and anything can happen. Even if you’re completely dressed, you’re still exposed.

Like others on the site, I more often than not utilized a webcam stand-in. Charlie, my rescue pug, received of “awes” and “LOLs” with his bug-eyed, mouth-gaping expression of befuddlement

He was also told by one pair of 20-something shirtless dudes that he should be shot “for being ugly.”

Charlie and I disconnected.

Mostly though, Charlie got hung up on first. To be fair to Charlie, this is pretty much what happens when I put myself on camera. But Charlie can take it. Me, not so much.

“Stop exporting your dog,” wrote another chat partner who demanded I show myself.

“Exporting?” I responded. “Why, I’m not shipping Charlie to another country for sale or exchange at all.” My partner disconnected.

If my partner meant “exploiting,” I suppose he or she was technically correct. Putting myself on camera felt like a set-up.

Here’s the thing. I’m closing in on the 5,000-friend limit on Facebook. And while I don’t really know the majority of these people, at least I know they want to be in the vicinity of my cyberspace. Same goes with Twitter. 

As a “mainstream media” columnist, I’m also the subject of of hateful hilarity written on blogs and whatnot. And while I generally find it amusing, my social network friends provide a nice padding against what the hippies call “negative energy.”

There is something to be found on ChatRoulette, if you can take it. My awesome chat partner, who used video of a train zooming through Norway as his onscreen stand-in, sifted out some interesting stuff:

“In the past 48 hours, I helped a sixteen year old Finnish girl with her English homework,” he wrote. “I kept a single mother in Chile company while she folded laundry. I declined a hit from a massive bong at a party in Spain. I watched a Big Ten college kid pass out drunk. I talked at length with a blue-collar resident of Anchorage about the job market there. I offered sympathy to a woman who had a bad head cold. I provided feedback to an aspiring poet in Australia.  And, I saw at least one thousand penises.”

I, too, had another meaningful exchange, one that ended in a little bit of heartbreak. When a young Asian man popped up on screen wearing a white bathrobe and ear buds, I figured this was more of the same.Thankfully, it wasn’t.

The young man said he was a 26-year-old computer engineer living in Taiwan, up at 3:30 a.m. because of “wakefulness.” He said he enjoyed ChatRoulette because it was fun to meet people and it helped him work on his English. We spent the next two hours talking about different places in the world we’d like to visit, the weather and Lady Gaga.

"Poker Face."
We exchanged the opening lyrics at the beginning of “Bad Romance,” and he showed me his “Poker Face” expression. In the last half hour he told me he was sad because it was the first Chinese New Year without his mother, who had passed away from cancer a month before. He sent me a YouTube link to the Taiwanese “sadness song” he was listening to, and more links to a photo album Web site so I could see her pictures.

He told me about his mother’s journal, written in the 1980s, which he’d found after her death. He talked about how when she was young, she wrote and thought about things he had never considered.

I went into comfort mode. I told him that it was okay to miss her, that it would be hard for a long time, but he would be okay, that his mother would want him to be okay. He started typing less and less. Then he disconnected, without saying goodbye.

Why take your chances on ChatRoulette when you can just friend Helen A.S. Popkin on Facebook or follow her on Twitter?

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