This article originally appeared on VICE UK.
Peter Kay voice: Remember… outside? Hugging your friends? Looking into their eyes while you heard their voices clearly and not in fits and starts over overburdened wi-fi connections?
I’m sure the majority of people reading this will have experienced a video call even before we found ourselves living and loving in The Time Of Coronavirus, but in the absence of being allowed any kind of f2f interaction with the people we love (or hate), we’ve downloaded a bunch of new video apps to stay ~connected for work and play. There’s Houseparty, which – like most new apps as a 30-year-old – makes me feel like an OAP as I try to navigate new buttons. Then there is Zoom, which is mostly for people with jobs to attend thrice-daily meetings so bosses can make sure no one is enjoying themselves at home. I assume there are others but frankly I don’t care, and some of you need to get better at spending time with yourselves.
But what about the OG video chatroom? Yes, I’m talking about Chatroulette. In its 2010 heyday, the site – created by a 17-year-old high school student in Moscow – had about 35,000 active users at any time. Most of them men. Or parts of men, at least. At the start of the last decade, Chatroulette was mostly used as a pre-drinks activity at uni (whey!), and any actual people you met would likely ask you to “show boobs”. Statistics from 2010 surmised that Chatroulette was "89 percent male, 47 percent American and 13 percent perverts at the time. But what about now? Is anyone even on there? If so, why? And what do they have to say about coronavirus?
According to previous statistics, about one in eight spins on Chatroulette “yielded someone apparently naked, exposing themselves, or engaging in a sexual act”. I soon discover that, in 2020, the number is closer to seven in eight spins. The site now has three different options to choose from: random (maybe some dicks), filtered (theoretically no dicks), and unfiltered (realistically nothing but dicks). Hoping to optimise my chances of being met with someone’s face, I choose filtered.
Happily, I am immediately met by…. a penis. Then another one, and another one, and another one, and then I meet Salman, a lovely Moroccan boy in his early 20s, living in Costa del Sol. He is quarantined away from his family, who are from a village near Chefchouen, the blue and white town that served as the backdrop to French Montana’s "Famous" video. He is spending his evening rolling a Moroccan hash zoot and drinking berber tea, and we discuss my recent trip to Marrakech, the last thing I did before the world as we know it ended. Then we get on to the real shit.
“Tell me, do you think the coronavirus was invented by America on purpose?” he asks. Although I’m a huge fan of conspiracy theories, especially ones involving American as the Great Satan (AKA world history), I am sadly unconvinced. Next up is a ginger legend serenading me with a rendition of “Sleep Now in the Fire” on his electric guitar, then an older Polish gentleman who was on Chatroulette “looking for inspiration from dark places” for his music. He then proceeded to play me some of his latest beats, which were not what I expected at all, and sounded like they were made by a teenage Soundcloud rapper. Some lo-fi beats to quarantine to, if you will.
After that is a GIRL – a rare Pokémon! She is 18 years old, from Manchester, and wearing a red hoodie. What the hell is she doing on this hellscape? “I’m stuck inside and just looking for people to talk to really… but I’m mostly just finding dicks.” After we disconnect, I am shown a message that tells me my feed has been temporarily cut off due to “suspicious activity”, which is quite wild considering how many dicks I have seen. Does my face… look like a dick?
No matter what I do – changing my VPN setting, switching laptop – I cannot get back on, which leads me to assume my IP address has been blocked; great content moderation had I actually been a huge sentient penis, but considering the fact that I am not, is very annoying. I’m done for the night.
Buoyed by one single glass of quarantine wine, I decide to give Chatroulette another go on Saturday night. To minimise my chances of getting blocked again, this time I choose the "random" option. Sure enough, I am greeted by a flurry of dicks, followed by a white dread listening to reggae who shows me his jar of weed, labeled "Blue Dream 1", before disconnecting.
A few more spins of the metaphorical wheel yield a new friendship in Santorini, Greece. “How are you doing with corona?” he asks me as an opener. We discuss our respective national corona statistics, how long we have been in quarantine, and what we can each see out of our windows – him: the Aegean sea and five cats sunbathing, me: a tree and some walls – before he has to go attend his online violin lesson.
I meet a lovely old Ukrainian man, but we cannot work through our language barrier, and a young American in a trucker cap who – when he gets up and flushes the toilet two minutes into our conversation – turns out was taking a shit. I think it’s safe to assume he did not wash his hands afterwards.
I see a man wanking in the bath, a man wanking in the shower, a man wanking with a black and white filter on his camera as if this is some kind of fucking romantic indie movie, a suspiciously underage looking wanker, a micropenis, a monster penis, and a lot of grey joggers. Then I meet the most worrying wanker of them all: a chef in full uniform, in a restaurant kitchen. To his credit, he actually asked if I was down to see him jerking off (I passed), but at this point I was so horrified about the level of health code violation I was witnessing that I had forgotten all about the idea of consent. Even when this is all over, I may never summon the courage to eat out again.
A few clicks later, I meet Clement, a construction worker quarantined alone in Paris where he works away from his girlfriend and friends in Bordeaux, who he usually visits every weekend. What has he been up to in quarantine? “This”, he says, holding up a beer. “And cooking. Usually I work 12 hour days so it’s nice to have time to cook for myself”.
Does he often use Chatroulette? “No, I haven’t been on here in maybe five years. But I’m stuck inside so I thought I might see if I could meet some people”. How is that going for him? He laughs. “Well, I have been on here for maybe two hours, and you are the third person I’ve spoken to.” And the rest? “So many dicks.”
My final friend of the night is Mario in Copenhagen. We discuss the cold ways of the Danish, and he shows me his incredibly well-stocked drinks cabinet. “Do you mind if I take a drink?” he asks, “I don’t drink alone usually but it would be nice for us to have a drink together.”
Mario is going through a divorce and studying for his second BA online now that the universities are closed. He spends the next 40 minutes chainsmoking rollies while telling me about how he is using his quarantined hours to get into buying and trading shares. He advises me to invest in gold if I have disposable income, and we move onto discussing game theory in the context of coronavirus. I concentrate more than I ever would if a man had tried to do this to me IRL, but I don’t really have a clue what he’s talking about and recommend he watch The Big Short.
After a successful Saturday night, I decide to give Chatroulette one last spin on Sunday, but find nothing but wankers. After approximately 30 penises, I find another man called Mario – 33 years old, quarantined in Rome – sitting in a dark room and watching Aladdin dubbed in Italian. I want to ask him questions about the lockdown, but he asks me who I live with and then his sister comes into his room and shouts at him for a while. When she leaves, he asks if my boyfriend does not feel jealous that I am on Chatroulette, which is confusing. Does he think this is a dating site? He disconnects, and I close the tab, having seen enough dicks for the rest of my life. Who’s on Houseparty?
All photos courtesy of the author.