Page last updated at 09:07 GMT, Wednesday, 24 March 2010

Chatroulette and Omegle: chat rooms with a twist

Zoe Kleinman
Technology reporter, BBC News

Katy Perry, Chatroulette, Twitter
Popstar Katy Perry announced on Twitter that she used Chatroulette.

If, like many, you grew up being ordered not to talk to strangers, the latest internet phenomenon presents both an illicit thrill and a deep-rooted discomfort.

The two sensations are key to the buzz around chat forums Chatroulette and Omegle, in which strangers are randomly connected with each other online.

Both developed by teenagers - Chatroulette by 17-year-old Russian Andrey Ternovskiy and Omegle by 18-year-old American Leif K Brook - the main difference between them is that a webcam is required for Chatroulette.

When you log on, if you don't like the person you see (or what they're doing) you hit "next" (or "disconnect" on Omegle) and automatically get a new, equally random connection. You cannot choose the person you want to speak to.

Vlogger verdict

Chatroulette transports you around the world into a stranger's life, over and over again
Casey Neistat

Video blogger Casey Neistat made a video about his experiences of using Chatroulette. During filming 19 out of 20 of his random chat buddies clicked away from him in under three seconds.

While it was hurtful he soon found that his own Chatroulette behaviour was equally fickle.

"After I got comfortable 'nexting' people I realised I would definitely next me too, I really only pause on pretty girls," he says on his video.

He proved his theory with the help of female friend Genevieve who had far more luck, holding conversations for a minimum of two minutes with nine out of ten of her chatbuddies (both male and female).

At its best, says Mr Neistat, Chatroulette is "something that transports you around the world into a stranger's life, over and over again".

There are charming stories of emerging characters like the "piano man" who improvises songs to the chat buddies that he encounters. There's also the potential thrill of a brush with a celebrity - popstar Katy Perry has said she is a fan of the site.

However there are far more unsavoury stories of people clicking "next" only to be faced with genitals and various sexual acts. The unregulated forum is not a place for the faint-hearted - or the squeamish.

As part of his experiment Mr Neistat connected with 90 people in one afternoon. He described them as mostly young, with a ratio of 71% male, 15% female and 14% "pervert".

So what is it that encourages strangers to be so overt with each other?

"There's a sense of freedom when our behaviour is not accountable and we don't have to deal with the consequences," said social psychologist Martin Skinner, a professor at Warwick University.

"It's not often in interactions that we get the chance to do whatever we want. One of the great taboos in social organisations is revealing the body - put any constraint on a human being and they want to react against it."

X-rated

The creators of both Chatroulette and Omegle have expressed disappointment with the x-rated way in which some people use their sites.

Leif K-Brook told BBC News that it was "annoying" and in an e-mail interview with the New York Times Andrey Ternovskiy said he was "really against it".

Whether this is youthful naivety or a clever bit of PR, both insist that despite the sleazy antics that have become part of the furniture, their noble intentions of reinvigorating people's social lives have been realised.

"Most of the ways people interact are based on commonality: common interests, culture, etc. That's all fine, but it's also important to interact with people who are different from you," said Mr K-Brook.

"Your life can become sort of stagnant if all of your friends are too similar to you."

Mr Ternovskiy set up Chatroulette for similar reasons - he and his friends had tired of talking to each other online and he wanted to inject some excitement into their web chat.

Tony Neate, managing director of campaign group Get Safe Online, says this sort of internet experience comes with a strong health warning.

If you've got to go in, go in with a very open mind
Tony Neate

"You don't know who you'll meet or what you'll see," he told BBC News. "It's certainly dangerous for children and young people. For parents it's got to be a concern.

"If you've got to go in, go in with a very open mind."

Social Psychologist Professor Martin Skinner however, has a more relaxed view.

"The only danger is if you take it too seriously," he said.

"You can stop when you want and the other person can't trace you. Like any contact if you pursue it and take it to the point where you identify yourself then you've lost control."



Print Sponsor


SEE ALSO
Staying safe on the web Q&A
05 Feb 10 |  UK
Naked Swiss hikers must cover up
27 Apr 09 |  Europe
Internet use linked to depression
03 Feb 10 |  Health
Man jailed over explicit emails
24 Apr 09 |  Cumbria

RELATED INTERNET LINKS
The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites



FEATURES, VIEWS, ANALYSIS
Has China's housing bubble burst?
How the world's oldest clove tree defied an empire
Why Royal Ballet principal Sergei Polunin quit

BBC navigation

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.

Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific