Journalists around the world are rushing to report about a buzzy new social media site, Chatroulette. The anchors of ABC's Good Morning America are "obsessed" with it; tech reporters at the New York Times are "utterly fascinated"; a columnist at the U.K.'s Independent describes it as "a gloriously mad concoction." The wholesome Jonas Brothers boyband has even taken to using the site to interact with fans. But, despite all the friendly mainstream attention, Chatroulette is an anarchic venue where users of any age do whatever they like in front of live webcams. It is, in short, totally inappropriate for younger users or even the remotely squeamish. (Watch a Chatroulette tutorial.) Here's a complete guide to latest fad in social media — so you never have to actually visit it:
What does it do?
Essentially, it allows you to chat with complete strangers. The site sets up randomly-generated webcam conversations. If you log on, you are immediately dropped into a face-to-face "chat" with another anonymous user, who may be anywhere from Azerbaijan to Zimbabwe.
What if you don't like them?
You just click "next" and another randomly selected user appears — that is, if your chatmate doesn't dump you first.
How long do chats last?
"Most Chatroulette exchanges last only a fleeting few seconds," says Tim Walker at the Independent. "The time it takes the stranger to see you," judge that you're "worth no more of their time," and "click onto their next chat."
Are you likely to get your feelings hurt?
Yes, says Sam Anderson at New York Magazine. Being "rejected by what felt like a cast of thousands" is "devastating." This is definitely not for those with a "social anxiety" disorder. "It was total e-visceration."
So why do people go on it?
Because it's a "hilarious and strange experience," says Jack Manire at the Vanderbilt Hustler. The "sense of freedom" that comes from speaking to strangers in a situation without any rules can be quite heady.
How many people use it?
The site boasts about 20,000 users on a typical night.
What kind of people use it?
The "median age seems to hover around 20," says New York's Anderson, and "males outnumber females probably twenty to one." A substantial percentage, says Richard Lawson at Gawker, are "just lonely-looking people" sitting at their computers "waiting for something to happen." It's actually kind of "bleak."
Sounds scary. Is it?
"Let's put it this way," says Brad Stone at the New York Times. "Parents, keep your children far, far away." The anonymous nature of Chatroulette attracts many exhibitionists. You can expect a full frontal male nude on "approximately one in every 10 clicks" on the site, says the Independent's Walker.
Isn't there some kind of regulation?
No. Although the site warns against "broadcasting obscene, offending, pornographic material," there's little to stop users doing whatever they want. You don't have to sign up to Chatroulette to use it, and as yet there's no way of being banned from the site if you misbehave.
Whose idea was it?
Andrey Ternovskiy, a 17-year-old high school student in Moscow who has never visited the USA. "I created this project for fun," he tells the New York Times. "Everyone finds his own way of using the site. Some think it is a game, others think it is a whole unknown world, others think it is a dating service."
Does he make money from it?
Not yet. The few ads on the site fund the bandwidth needed to host it. But Ternovskiy says he has already received "interesting offers" to help him "improve" the project. At least one web investor has already expressed an interest in meeting the 17-year-old.
Is it really the next big thing?
Probably not, says Tim Walker in the Independent. Unless someone "hones the experience" by vetting the users, it'll end up like other internet fads — a "firework burst with a fast fade". But it's a "compelling experience", says Fred Wilson at his blog AVC.com. If it's managed properly, it has the potential to become "Facebook 2.0."
What should I say about it at dinner parties?
You could do worse than to quote Michael Wolff, the creator of Newser: "If the Internet is about the democratization of self-expression, then this is a pure form. It reduces all of the desperate and determined desire to be seen and heard and acknowledged to its essence." Or, more simply, repeat the words of the Toronto Globe and Mail's Ivor Tossell: "Chatroulette is life sped up."