As described at one vendor site, chat-roulette is “just a way of meeting people online randomly, mainly for users with webcams.” This innocent-sounding description belies the real dangers that this style of chat has introduced to the web for kids and teens. In particular, as location-based features are offered in many of the more recent copy-cat sites, parents should take notice and consider restricting their children from their use.
The Original Chatroulette: One in Eight Sessions Reported to Include Objectionable Content
The original Chatroulette site enables anyone with a webcam to share their video and audio stream, live, with a random stranger from anywhere in the world. When users tire of one session, they can “spin” to find a new session. Thus the catchy “roulette” moniker.
And, as with the notorious “Russian roulette”, the consequences of landing on the wrong session with a spin can be potentially dangerous for your child, depending on the stranger on the other end of the session.
The site, launched in Nov 2009, experienced rapid growth to over 1.5M users by March 2010. One informal study conducted at that time, reveals that:
- 1 in 8 sessions included objectionable content
- 89% of “spins” connected to an individual male user, whereas only 11% connected to an individual female
- Females were more likely to be found using Chatroulette in groups
- Males often revealed their genitalia during the session
- Males often requested female nudity
The reputation of the site became notorious, something which Wired Magazine described as “painful to remember” a few weeks ago. Wired also stated that Chatroulette had been “killed” by its members’ penchant for displaying their private parts. However, the site is still in business. There are also many copy-cat sites which have sprung up in response to the site’s popularity – even if that popularity is now “so last year.” Copy-cat sites include:
- Bazoocam.org, which claims that a constant real-time monitoring team of 40 people help people to “keep their clothes on”
- Omegle.com, which started as a text-only chat-roulette but added video after Chatroulette’s popularity
- TeensChatroulette.com, a version of Chatroulette which requires registration to “protect you from the perverts” and which (attempts) to restrict its users to those under the age of 21; nothing is said, however, of those under 13 nor COPPA rules
- vChatter, which randomly links users on Facebook, Bebo and the Web
- Yobongo, an iPhone app launched this month which offers to connect strangers randomly and anonymously in mobile chatrooms which are grouped by city location
As a perhaps interesting side-note, the “man” behind the original Chatroulette site is a 17yo Russian high school boy, Andrey Ternovskiy. Youth culture continues to be a dynamic force in the adoption and continual evolution of social media, and helps to explain why these new services have such a strong youth appeal. In this case, the service was invented by and for teen culture.
Recent Introductions Eliminate Anonymity and Offer to Legitimize the Video Peer-to-Peer Concept
In Dec 2010, Bebo added a service called bChat as a ”safe” alternative to Chatroulette for its users. In Feb 2011, SocioEyes launched using Facebook Connect. Both services offer to clean up peer-to-peer video streaming by eliminating anonymity. The thought is that lack of anonymity will discourage abuse. Connections with these services are also not random, but based on shared interests or location.
At OSS, we agree that eliminating anonymity should help to clean up the content and discourage abuse of this type of service. However, the location-based nature of some of these connections to strangers should still raise concerns for parents.