Chatroulette, and the Secret Behind the Web's Most Addictive Site

I've been trying to figure out why -- the randomized video-chat website that's been getting a ton of press lately -- is so compulsively addictive, and I think I've got it. I've been thinking about this because I spent close to two hours on that damned site last night, two hours that I could've spent sleeping, working, cleaning my apartment or catching up with my actual, non-virtual friends.I hasten to add here that, during those two hours, I was not exposing myself, displaying drug paraphernalia, sitting in front of a swastika banner, holding up a sign that said "Show Ur Boobz!" or doing any of the other unpleasant things that bother critics of the site. (This should be obvious, but if you're the sort who's bothered by explicit images and rough language, please do yourself a kindness and don't bother to check it out. You will regret it.) Nor was I drawing people's portraits, writing songs about them, hosting an intercontinental dance party, dressing up as a Roman centurion, or doing any of the delightful things those who champion the site prefer to talk about.

No, I was pretty much just passively surfing around, being me. More than anything, I was waiting a beat to see what kind of reactions I elicited from people. This is what I discovered: People shout "Jesus!" That's because I have longish hair and a beard. (See photo at right.) I got called "Jesus" about as often as I witnessed men pleasuring themselves, which is to say astonishingly often. One chat partner even called me "Jesus" before going on to explain that the historical Jesus was, of course, African, which I am not.

Chilean Slang, Kiwi Curiosity

That was an enjoyable exchange, and I had many others. I talked to a roomful of people my age in Chile who taught me Spanish slang. I geeked out on Star Wars with college kids in Long Island. A guy who was learning accordion played me the only song in his repertoire. An ultra-polite fellow in New Zealand who had just logged onto Chatroulette for the first time shared with me his shock and amusement. I laughed out loud many, many times at the pointless creativity of people everywhere.

In between these relatively rare rewarding encounters were hundreds of mundane, gross, or insulting meetings that lasted just a second or two before one of us clicked "Next." The high proportion of chaff to wheat on Chatroulette makes it seem like the site should be way more annoying than it is fun, but in practice, it doesn't work that way.

A Russian Teen Makes a Sure Bet

In fact, it's exactly what makes the site so relentlessly addictive. Anyone who's studied behavioral psychology knows that, of the different schedules of reward employed to condition a subject's response, the most powerful by far is the one known as "variable ratio." This is the system of payoff used, most notoriously, by slot machines: You know if you pull that lever enough times, you'll get three cherries; you just don't know how many times it will take. (True, "Chatslotmachine" isn't nearly as catchy a name.) No matter what sort of jackpot you have in mind, the temptation to pull it one more time is almost irresistible. A game that rewards its user every time is, in fact, far less addictive than one that pays off only occasionally.

Slot machines, where they're legal, are very good business indeed for their owners. Chatroulette could be, too. The site's creator, a 17-year-old Russian named Andrey Temovskiy, is hoping to expand and perhaps establish a base of operations in the U.S. He says he prefers to keep advertising on the site to a minimum, but it already generates enough revenue from a few Google AdSense links to pay for the considerable bandwidth he uses. If I were a tech investor looking for a can't-miss bet, I'd be calling Andrey Temovskiy right now.

Of course, there are a couple of problems that would have to be solved for Chatroulette to make a real go of it as a business. There would absolutely have to be some kind of filtering system to censor the most explicit content in order for big-name brand advertisers to get involved. There are also some pretty serious questions about the potential legal liabilities of both the site and its users. Right now, there's no doubt that people are using the site to break laws, and perhaps serious ones. (Exposing oneself online is one thing; exposing oneself to a minor, or inducing a minor to do the same, is considerably more grave.)

As it is, the site is officially off limits to anyone under 16, and a prominent button encourages users to report "obscene, offending [or] pornographic" chats. But there doesn't appear to be any enforcement of anything -- and any attempt to police the site could kill the anything-goes vibe on which its appeal rests.

In the short term, however, if anything's going to cause Chatroulette to jump the shark, it's probably its own skyrocketing popularity. Just in the past couple weeks, the site has become noticeably slower as new users have swarmed to it to see what all the fuss is about. Whether you're going there to be titillated by something outrageous, to be amused by something hilarious or to make real human connections with people you'd never otherwise come into contact with, you're going to leave disappointed if all you get is a blank window and the words "Looking for a random stranger..."
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