Chatroulette Was Shorthand for Chaos Online. Then Came the 2010s

Try to take stock of the 2010s in social media and you might begin to feel a sense of dread. This was the decade of mistrust and manipulation, when platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube became synonymous with hijacking democratic elections, promoting ethnic cleansing, and creating “digital voodoo dolls” from our data. Mark Zuckerberg started the decade as Time’sPerson of the Year,” and ended it with several trips to testify before Congress. Twitter became an amplifier for a president who would end the decade impeached. Young people turned themselves into grocery stores on Instagram, and an egg became the most popular account online.

When the decade began, this new world was already forming, the plot already in motion. But for a brief moment, as 2009 turned into 2010, we had a glimpse of what a different social web might look like. That moment was Chatroulette.

Forget, for a moment, everything that’s happened and transport yourself back to 2009, Moscow, in the childhood bedroom of a young coder named Andrey Ternovskiy. The 17-year-old had just spent the summer working in a local souvenir shop, talking to tourists from all around the world. It inspired him to recreate the experience—the series of chance, fleeting, human encounters—online. The conceit was this: You’d be paired with a conversational partner at random for a video chat via webcam. (There was a text-based chat box, too.) When a conversation reached its limit, you could simply hit “next” to talk to someone new. And you could repeat that cycle for, seemingly, the rest of time. Later, when the site became an international craze with over 30 million users, Ternovskiy would describe Chatroulette as “one hundred percent my window into the world.”

I was one of the early users to try Chatroulette, not long after it launched in November 2009. Ternovskiy and I are the same age, and though we grew up some 6,000 miles apart, we shared an appetite for something bigger than what we had. High school was small and insular, but online, the world was vast and open. In a time when Craigslist was for creeps and AIM was for your friends, Chatroulette held space for the bigness of the internet. There were millions of people out there, just waiting to meet you. All you had to do was click.

People had, of course, been talking to strangers online for a long time by that point. The earliest days of Bulletin Board Systems and Internet Relay Chat made it possible to call up any old person, usually based on a similar interest. Similarly, randomness had been the foundational idea of sites like StumbleUpon, created in 2001. One minute you’d be on a website about exotic cat breeds, and just a click later, a list of the best vacation destinations in Italy. But by 2009, we were already moving away from those random, anonymous experiences and toward the new social web. Everyone my age had a MySpace or, increasingly, a Facebook. We used real names, not screen names; we had algorithms and filters to find who, or what, we were looking for. Instagram would come out a year later, and our parents were already squeamish about us posting photos online. (At the time, my biggest fear was that a college admissions officer might discover my Facebook profile.)

Chatroulette arrived at the perfect moment: It was spring break for the open internet, the last gasp of something wild and free. (Omegel, another random video chat app, also launched in 2009; its founder was also a teenager.) The chance encounters could be bizarre, unexpected, and utterly delightful. There was no permanence, no popularity contests, no viral sensations—it was just you and your conversation partner (or partners; it was not uncommon to go spelunking through the site with an entourage).

In a 2010 tour through the site for The New Yorker, writer Julia Ioffe described the vast range of things one could find in just a few minutes on Chatroulette: “the dancing Korean girls, the leopard-printed Catman, the naked man in Gdansk.” That last item is a mere hint of the site’s infamous acts of exhibitionism; at the height of Chatroulette’s popularity, an analytics startup found that one in eight spins resulted in something “R-rated.” On the other hand, enough positive encounters took place to inspire Chatroulette Missed Connections, a site for people in search of a conversation partner whose signal had dropped or disappeared.

By the end of its first month, Chatroulette had grown to 500 users; a month later, 50,000. Over the next year, Chatroulette would criss-cross computers around the world, making millions of introductions to strangers and earning the attention, it seemed, of every major media outlet. The Daily Show did a segment; it appeared in an episode of South Park. The reception was equal parts obsession and repulsion. It was described in the press as “the Holy Grail of all internet fun,” and “the future of the internet.” The New York Times warned parents to “keep your children far, far away.”

Edmund Burke, in the 18th century, outlined a theory of the sublime that has been summarized as “the experience of the infinite, which is terrifying and thrilling because it threatens to overpower the perceived importance of human enterprise in the universe.” That was Chatroulette in 2010.

Chatroulette reminded people of an earlier, anarchic experience online—one that stood in stark contrast to platforms like Facebook and Google, which sought to order and organize the internet with their algorithms and precisely mapped social graphs. In February of that year, the writer Sam Anderson described it as “the Wild West: a stupid, profound, thrilling, disgusting, totally lawless boom,” when the rest of the internet had become ensconced in rule. If Chatroulette really caught fire, he added, “it might even swing our collective online pendulum back toward chaos.”

Chatroulette did catch fire, and it burned bright before quickly burning out. By June, bloggers were already writing its obituary (“you can’t build an empire on dicks”). The novelty wore off, traffic plummeted, and Ternovskiy—still a teenager—came to terms with the fact that Chatroulette was not the future of the internet.

The internet we got instead was filled with chaos, just not the opportunistic masturbation kind. Filters and algorithms and rules were meant to tame social media, to foster community. And in some ways, it did: Movements like the Arab Spring and Black Lives Matter took shape online, using hashtags and livestreams alongside more traditional tactics to broadcast their messages. But the same tools would also be exploited to promote disinformation and fringe or hateful ideologies. People streamed mass shootings and other acts of terrorism. Engagement algorithms helped grow the audiences for conspiracy theorists like Alex Jones, and rewarded the rest of us for posts that were angry, hateful, or mean. Chatroulette wasn’t exactly civil—far from it—but there was no easy way to coordinate attacks, no built-in mechanisms to amplify bad behavior. If you encountered a Nazi, you’d just hit “next.” Chatroulette wouldn’t recommend you more Nazis.

If we’ve learned anything in the past ten years, it’s that walled gardens built by Silicon Valley’s biggest companies don’t necessarily offer refuge from humanity’s darkest impulses. More and more people are questioning the power of a few large companies to dictate how millions of users experience the internet, who they talk to, and what they see. Almost half of the planet is now online—but rather than seeming more expansive, more connected, the internet feels smaller. We see only what the algorithms think we want to see. And instead of protecting us, those algorithmic can sometimes feel like prisons, keeping us locked up with the worst of what’s online.

As we enter the next decade, there’s a small movement to recapture some of that randomness and anonymity. Recently, people have begun texting their “neighbor number,” or the person who shares all but the last digit of their phone number. Some formed groups to meet up with strangers for tea, at random. And this fall, a number of experimental dating apps seem to have revived the Chatroulette formula. Blindlee randomly sets people up on three-minute blind video dates; faces are blurred before you make the call, so you have to, you know, talk. NextDate introduces people through video dates; “a streamer has 90 seconds to tap ‘next,’ which ends the current pairing and skips to the next contestant in the queue,” a press release explains. The League, a dating app geared toward professionals, recently launched its own video dating feature, which replaces swiping with live video chats.

As for Chatroulette, it’s still hanging on by a thread. A journalist will occasionally drive by to report on the state of things, and return wide-eyed and a little grossed out. (The old warnings ring truer than ever: Keep your children far, far away.) Ternovskiy, who moved to Silicon Valley in 2010 with dreams of taking the site to the big leagues, has mostly dropped off the map. But his vision—a place where you could simply chat with a stranger from some far-flung corner of the world—is more relevant than ever. Maybe, in this next decade, another teenage tinkerer will find in her childhood bedroom the next window into the world.

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