Is Chatroulette a sign of internet punk?
Bill Thompson is pleased to see the punk ethic alive and well online
Anyone with a few minutes to spare online might enjoy visiting
- the finest expression of punk mentality from the emerging internet generation that I've yet come across.
It's not hard to play, as there are only three rules. You have to be aged 16 or over. You're asked to "please stay clothed". And you can alert the management by clicking F2 "if you don't like what you see".
Click 'New Game' to start a game, give the service access to to your camera and microphone and you begin a video conversation with a random stranger.
Chatroulette uses Adobe Flash to turn on the camera and microphone on a visitor's computer and register their IP address with the site. It then connects that user with another, random IP address and opens up a connection between the two, so you can start to chat.
Causing a stir
Even though it's getting millions of users, Chatroulette is very scalable because, like the original Napster, the data doesn't actually go through the Chatroulette site itself.
Instead it uses Flash's peer-to-peer streaming service to make a direct link between the two computers and only has to keep track of the IP addresses and "next" calls.
It is also causing an enormous fuss, largely because it is unmediated, requires no registration or verification and is open to every exhibitionist, deviant and random stranger online.
My son reckons he is getting a ratio of 14 naked men to one worthwhile conversation, which sounds about right for a service that is intended to do for video chat what Twitter has done for communication in 140 characters or less, and show us the real potential of the unfettered connectivity that the internet makes possible.
Of course it's a scandal, and of course it is potentially corrupting and dangerous, though the random nature of the connection and the lack of any way to choose who you talk to mean that the chances of coming across someone in the same country never mind the same city or town are vanishingly small.
Yes, someone could use it to make contact by writing their email address or phone number on a card or calling it out as soon as a connection is made, but you'd have to be pretty stupid to think of this as a reliable way to make new friends or find victims.
The point about Chatroulette is that is has no point, that it strips away the wooden panelling from this finely modelled room we call the internet to reveal all the workings beneath and show that in the end it's just a space for making connections between people.
It reminds me of the day in 1977 when I went into the sixth form common room at Southwood Comprehensive School in Corby and my mate Dougie Gordon played me his newly-arrived copy of God Save The Queen and everything I thought I knew about politics, music and revolution coalesced around the Sex Pistols into a punk sensibility that has stayed with me ever since.
Chatroulette is a pure expression of that punk spirit, delivered through the tools available to today's teenagers rather than the electric guitar and seven-inch single of my childhood, and the anger with which it has been received by the establishment is a testament to its disruptive potential.
The kids have arrived online - Chatroulette creator Andrey Ternovskiy is the same age as the Mosaic browser - and they want to shape it in their image.
I hope they pull it off, though in another echo of punk history Ternovskiy is already being wooed by the majors to sign up and sell out, and the temptation to turn his rebellion into money must be intense. Rather like Jimmy, the punk-precursor hero of The Who's Quadrophenia, he is under pressure to conform from his parents as his mother doesn't like the way Chatroulette can be used.
Perhaps he will stay true to punk, like Joe Strummer of The Clash or Siouxsie Sioux. Perhaps he'll sell out like Johnny Rotten and we'll see Chatroulette used to advertise butter.
But whatever may happen to his site the impact will be felt as other kids realise that they can pick up a keyboard and become punk programmers, just as my generation picked up a guitar and learned three chords. Chatroulette's launch was the day the net turned day-glo, and Poly Styrene and X Ray Spex would be so proud.
Bill Thompson is an independent journalist and regular commentator on the BBC World Service programme Digital Planet. He is currently working with the BBC on its archive project.