Strangers in the Net, Exchanging Glances

Monday, March 08 2010

ARE social networking sites bringing us together, or only fake bringing us together?

This, in a nutshell, is the debate between the technology utopians and the technology skeptics, who worry that luminous words like “friend” and “network” are being drained of their meaning by people chained to their cellphones or computers.

Well, the Web site ChatRoulette could be instructive in this debate, if only to show what true fake togetherness looks like. And to remind us how stubbornly the human species resists such alienation.

The site has been much discussed in the press as yet another example of the depravity lurking barely beneath the surface of the Internet — ChatRoulette enables strangers with webcams to instantly watch and speak with each other, or hit the “next” button to move on.

As you might expect, there are some twisted ways to make a first impression. But unlike so many shocking things on the Internet, whether viral video, photograph or blog post, ChatRoulette is a living, breathing community. Or kind of.

“It’s a social network that’s not a social network,” said Tim Hwang, co-author of a study of ChatRoulette published this month by the Web Ecology Project. “A body without bones.”

Mr. Hwang and his co-author, Alex Leavitt, describe ChatRoulette as “a probabilistic community” that “relies on the transitory connections between users that cannot be maintained beyond the initial period of contact.”

The service randomly assigns people to each other — as many as 50,000 at a time from around the world — while keeping no records of any sort. There is no user login, and no archive of what is said or shown. There is no “back” button, only a “next” button.

(For those keeping score at home, the two researchers released their “initial survey” — complete with pie charts and a methodology — before Jon Stewart of “The Daily Show” took note of the media frenzy over the site.)

So while it is easy to think of similarly probabilistic networks, whether the crowd at a nightclub, the passengers on a flight to Rio or the people massing on a busy street corner, those networks eventually turn social. There are the regulars at the club, Mr. Hwang says, the people who sell hot dogs on the corner, the crew of an airline flight.

At ChatRoulette it is ever forward. Don’t look back. Can’t look back.

“It doesn’t spread in the way that social networks normally spread, through social connections and strong sustained communities,” Mr. Hwang said.

For that reason, ChatRoulette has behaved unusually for a social network. Created by a Russian teenager in December, it has sprinted to public consciousness by piggybacking on other communities. Whether through postings on YouTube or other social networks like Twitter and Facebook, people insist on looking back.

Strangers’ reactions, recorded during sessions on ChatRoulette, have been strung together in popular videos on YouTube. There are also blogs that collect favorite screen grabs that follow a theme, say, cats or Star Wars costumes. And there is lots of online chatter about the site on forums like Facebook and Twitter.

Alessio Signorini, a Ph.D. candidate in computer science at the University of Iowa who keeps a close watch on Twitter, plotted how often ChatRoulette was mentioned on the service. “The interesting part of the graph is the continuous alternate pattern of highs and lows,” he said.

Ordinarily, social networks grow through expanding webs of connections — you “friend” two people on Facebook, who friend two more people on Facebook, who friend two more, and so on. ChatRoulette’s growth has mimicked that of so-called viral content on the Web, Mr. Signorini wrote in an e-mail.

“It has video (everything with video becomes viral recently, and then quickly disappears), you do not need to install software (works out of your browser),” he wrote. “It is weird enough that once you hear about it you want to try it once.”

Traffic on Wikipedia likewise shows an explosion of interest in ChatRoulette, as measured by how many people viewed the article about the service each day. In a one-week period in mid-February, the number of page views climbed to 6,000 from 2,500 a day.

And that crudest of tools, a search of the Nexis news database, uncovered no articles about ChatRoulette in December, two in January, 109 in February and about five new articles a day in March.

ChatRoulette may never move beyond faddish interest. Mr. Hwang, however, counts himself a ChatRoulette optimist, arguing that the service will inevitably become more like other social networks and lose its radical anonymity and chaotic spirit.

In other words, it won’t be that odd experiment — a social network that rigorously prevents even the slightest of social ties from taking hold. And thus makes us appreciate the roots that live on the Internet and even beyond.

Tara Hunt, author of “The Whuffie Factor,” a guide to using social networks in business, sees ChatRoulette as belonging in the faddish camp.

“In our individualistic, personalized, nichified communities of interest, things like Tiger Woods, the Olympics/Grammies/Season Finale of ‘Lost’ (where we are experiencing watching and tweeting at once en masse), ChatRoulette jokes,” she wrote in an e-mail message, “span across interest groups and allow us to connect for that brief period. Unfortunately, the connection through that sharing is fleeting and not very deep.”