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How to Talk to Strangers During Quarantine

Is Chatroulette the same as meeting a random person on a night out? Of course not. But it's still pretty fun.
18 May 2020, 1:53am
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Boredom led me back to Chatroulette for the second time in almost a decade during my seventh week of self-isolation. While I browsed, I landed on one of the site’s de facto mascots: a guy jerking off furiously in front of the camera. His naked pelvis dominated the frame, illuminated only by the glow of the computer. I asked, like I’d asked all the other disembodied junk I’d seen that night, “How’s your quarantine going?” To my surprise, he swung the camera towards his face and answered that it was going fine, thanks.

While he declined to be identified, he paused his shadowy masturbation session to tell me he was on the site thanks to a female friend’s encouragement. (He clarified that she encouraged him to check the site out, but he was the one who connected the dots to masturbating on camera by himself.) Per his experience, as far as reception from other users, he said people seemed to like what they saw.

And, as always on Chatroulette, anyone who’d prefer not to see nudity is free to skip forward for another random matchup.

It doesn’t take a sociologist to figure out that between Google Hangout birthday parties, the meteoric rise of OnlyFans, catch-up Facetimes with friends stranded in the suburbs, Houseparty-fueled Pictionary games, and begrudgingly attended family Zoom calls, we’re living in the midst of a videochat renaissance. Frankly, it’s surprising that Photobooth selfies haven’t made a full-throated comeback (yet).

If fatigue from spending virtual facetime with everyone you’ve ever met is beginning to set in, you’re not alone; it’s perfectly acceptable to throw your phone on Do Not Disturb and snuggle up with a pet, a housemate, or just a freaking book for a little while.

But maybe you’re not craving alone time; maybe, you’re craving social novelty. That’s where the most chaotic video platform of all time comes in: enter Chatroulette.

My Chatroulette odyssey began when my roommate suggested we take it for a spin one particularly long Saturday night. The site’s core concept (random selection) sounded especially appealing at a time when every social interaction has to be meticulously planned for; a video call timed for every participant’s maximum convenience or carefully mapped out to preserve social distance.

Flipping through the screens and chatting with the strangers behind them was more than just a way to kill time. It actually, every so often, approximated real social contact. We spent almost an hour talking to a man in Boston, who held his Jack Russell Terrier up to the screen at our request. We watched a man in a construction uniform welding pipes in some kind of basement. (He didn’t respond to any of our questions about where he actually was, but we enjoyed the show anyway.) We thanked a pair of nurses, spending their night off the same way we were, for showing up at their South Carolina hospital every day in spite of all the risks.

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A building that's not the one I'm constantly inside of? Okay. I'm hooked.

The second time we hit the ‘Lette, I set out on reporting business, another roommate in tow. When I asked a few people to share what brought them back to a video chat platform most people last used around a decade ago, their answers, like mine, all circled back to breaking up the monotony of quarantine.

Z, a man self-isolating alone in Atlanta, Georgia, who declined to give VICE his full name or occupation for privacy reasons, turned to Chatroulette in search of an audience. He said he uses the website as a way to practice the ukulele “in front of other people” a few nights a week.

What lessons from quarantine will you bring to the real world? Tell us. Email: replytovice@vice.com.

Z told VICE that learning the instrument has become his quarantine project, but that his ukulele wasn’t a purchase made to save off boredom. “The last time I saw [my grandfather] when he was coherent, we watched ukulele videos for hours. I was like, I should learn the ukulele, so on my way home that day, I bought a ukulele. This was like two years ago—[but] I didn't practice it,” he said. “I played it a few times and set it in my room and never touched it again. Now there's literally nothing to do, so I decided to start practicing in my living room.”

But like my friends and I, not everyone browsing Chatroulette is doing so alone—we flipped by the occasional scantily clad couple, the young person ignoring an offscreen parent’s command, or the roommates crowding around a screen, eager for a break from movie marathons and videogames. “We have nothing to do, we're just here like, stuck in here,” said Hugo, isolating with his roommates Joel and Ignacio in North Carolina. “It's fun conversations. There's some shit out there, but the people we've met... they're pretty cool.”

Hugo said he and his co-isolators had last visited Chatroulette around a year ago, but that this was the first time they’d returned since. He said logging back on brought about what they’d anticipated. “It's a lot of swiping, let's just say that,” he said.

Matt, a hospital worker self-isolating alone in Nova Scotia, Canada, said he hadn’t visited Chatroulette in around five years. “I was just flipping through Tinder, and then I just remembered that I can talk to random people on the internet, so I looked it up,” he told VICE. “I was wondering if there was an app for it or whatever, and then I just saw it was on the [desktop], so I went for that.” (There is, indeed, no Chatroulette app.)

Matt told VICE he was watching an early episode of Parks and Recreation and turned to Chatroulette in search of a viewing buddy. “I was just bored out of my mind,” he said. “I use Snapchat a lot. I think I FaceTimed someone last week. Snapchat and texting are my main communication now.” He said he was primarily looking for distractions online as he was “trying to quit smoking dope.”

Normally, Z said, he focuses on the music he’s trying to play, rather than whoever is flashing across the Chatroulette screen, and only checks to see who’s watching if he can hear someone lingering. He said the feedback he’s gotten on Chatroulette has been positive, especially compared with Omegle, where he’s now banned. “I guess someone reported me!” he said. When asked if he’d ever caught anyone tuning in with their pants off, he said he had yet to catch anyone in the act. “They've probably got better things to jerk off to, like other people jerking off.”

Music was a big theme for people trying to connect on Chatroulette right now: Z ended his interview with a gentle rendition of “Leaving on a Jet Plane,” and another Chatroulette musician played a Spanish song about love and longing (that required some on-the-fly translation from this reporter’s roommate).

These interactions weren’t the same as meeting a new person at a party, or even sharing an Uber Pool home with a chatty co-rider, but they were still substantial enough to feel like genuine human connection.

The biggest changes to today’s Chatroulette are technical ones. Certain features of the Chatroulette experience have been definitively upgraded: Participants can now speak directly to each other via their computer’s microphone, rather than via a chat interface, doing away with the need for a quick “A/S/L?” at the top of the conversation. But what has remained the same is that Chatroulette’s digital population is still made up of a bunch of pretty friendly people, the kind willing to spend their free time talking to strangers on the internet. Also, dicks. There are still plenty of dicks.

But, if you can navigate the dick waves, Chatroulette is a good reminder of one thing that binds us all together in these divisive times: We’re all bored as fuck. There’s something undeniably comforting about that.

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