Chance encounters

By Daniel Rothberg

With just a computer, an Internet connection and a webcam, Kathryn Gallagher ‘11 talked to a group of soldiers who were about to be deployed to Iraq.

“It was one of the only times that I have really talked to soldiers,” she said. “I had a very interesting conversation and they told me why they wanted to be in the war and stuff like that.”

Gallagher, who said that she does not support the war but does support the troops, thinks that talking to the soldiers gave her a new perspective on military service.

“Talking to them made me realize that there was a whole other side to the story,” she said. “It was really admirable what they were doing.”

Using the website, Gallagher has, on multiple occasions, connected with strangers from around the world through a live video feed.

“You meet really cool people,” Gallagher said. “I have never not been entertained by Chatroulette.”

Created by a 17-year-old high school student in Russia, Chatroulette is a website that allows its users to communicate via webcam with strangers from anywhere around the globe.

If users are unhappy with the person that they have been randomly paired with, they have an option to exit the interaction. By clicking the “next” button on the website, a user can terminate their current conversation and begin a new one with a different stranger.

Two months ago, Cassie* ’11 walked into her friend’s room to find a group of her friends huddled around a computer talking to a stranger. They were on Chatroulette.

“I thought it was the weirdest thing and then two minutes later I was hooked just like everyone else was,” Cassie said. “It’s a rush. You never know what you will get when you click ‘next.’”

School psychologist Sheila Siegel thinks that students are intrigued by Chatroulette because they are interested in getting a peek into other people’s lives.

“You get a slice of people’s life and there is sort of a thrill to that,” Siegel said.

School Counselor Luba Bek thinks that students are attracted to Chatroulette because there are no restrictions on what you can or cannot do on the website.

“I think it is chaos,” Bek said. “Chaos has always been attractive to people, especially to people who live within a set of really strict rules.

When you get on the site there are no rules and anybody can do whatever they want to do.

Nobody is telling you the parameters or the logistics of the ‘game.’”

Bek said that the chaos might provide a psychological release for students growing up in a strict environment.

“The anarchy of [Chatroulette] is so different from the structure and environment where you grow up that I think it is really just a psychological release,” Bek said.

Many students have found the website addictive because they are curious to see what kind of person they are paired up with when they click the ‘next’ button.

Justin Bretter ’11 said that he has gone on the Chatroulette almost every day since finding out about the website over two months ago.

“I get consumed by it,” Bretter said.

Both Siegel and Bek compared the addictiveness of Chatroulette to gambling. Chatroulette users, like gamblers, stay on the website for long periods of time in the hope that they will find a person to interact with that is to their liking.

This behavior is recognized in psychology as random intermittent reinforcement, Siegel said.

While the Terms of Service for the website clearly state that Chatroulette “does not tolerate broadcasting obscene, offending, pornographic material” and will “block users who violate these rules,” students have said that they have often seen explicit and pornographic content when using Chatroulette.

“About one out of four [people] are naked men or guys pressuring you to take your shirt off,” Cassie said. “It’s a risk you have to take.”

“It is a little bit dangerous because you might get something disgusting but that is probably what also makes it a little intriguing,” Siegel said.

Officer Cleon Joseph of the Los Angeles Police Department’s Media Relations Office said that there are inherent risks with using any website where you communicate with strangers.

“You don’t know who you are talking to,” he said. “Use your head, use your best judgment, but the bottom line is, there are adult predators out there.”

Joseph recommends that adolescents have their parents screen the websites that they go on to make sure that the sites are safe.

“There are a thousand things that make it [the internet] dangerous,” Joseph said. “You really have to involve your parents.”

While some students are addicted to the Chatroulette, others are repulsed by the website.

“I think it’s really creepy to cycle through random strangers and half of the time get naked people,” Max Sheldon ’11 said. “I don’t think that’s very fun.”

Because of the anonymity that Chatroulette provides, adolescents are more willing to do things that they would not normally do in public where their identity is known, Bek said.

“The anonymity of this makes people feel thrilled, totally unrecognizable and gives kids the possibility to do whatever they want,” Bek said.

“It’s a thrill to make yourself look dumb in front of a stranger without the danger of having the stranger right in front of you,” Cassie said. “You can say whatever you want, meet whoever you want. Nothing is lasting. It’s cool that you can make a fool out of yourself without actually being there.”