ChatRoulette: The site that had millions of people pressing their luck


Since the widespread adoption of the internet, an enormous amount of trends and crazes have seen popularity—some more fleeting than others. However, few websites have been as simplistic, controversial, and abruptly popular as ChatRoulette. Founded in late 2009 by Andrey Ternovskiy, then a seventeen-year-old programming enthusiast from Moscow, ChatRoulette had rather humble beginnings.[1]  Ternovskiy created the website after he and his friends got bored video-calling each other over Skype, and desired a video chat platform that “operated in a more random way.”[2] According to a February 2010 review by New York Times Columnist Nick Bilton, “Entering Chatroulette is akin to speed-dating tens of thousands of perfect strangers—some clothed, some not.”[3]

ChatRoulette utilizes a user’s webcam and microphone, and randomly pairs them with another user for short, casual, conversations. The interface itself is very minimalistic. Aside from the two video feeds, a user can chat in the provided text box, or click “next” to stop the conversation and engage a different user. Bilton continues his review of the website, stating, “I used the service for the first time a few weeks ago, and I found it both enthralling and distasteful, yet I kept going back for more.”[3] So what exactly was it about ChatRoulette that kept users so engaged?

In his 2003 essay, “Re-Newing Old Technologies,” Tom Gunning explores the idea of “the uncanny experience” of emergent technologies.[4] Every aspect of ChatRoulette was both strange and familiar for new users. Users had been video-calling on Skype for years—but never in this random, unpredictable manner. These “random” aspect was not inherently novel either. Users had long before, in the early days of the internet, been chatting with strangers textually in AOL chatrooms.[5]  But they had only ever done so with the security blanket of anonymity which screen names could provide. The uneasiness that accompanied showing your own face, the fear of rejection, and the ever-present fear that you would stumble upon individuals exploiting the website for sexual means—all of this was part of the thrill. ChatRoulette was able to take users just far enough out of their comfort zones, and they couldn’t get enough.

Google Trends analysis for the popularity of "ChatRoulette" over time

Google Trends analysis for the popularity of “ChatRoulette” over time

Today, the fervor surrounding ChatRoulette has quelled, as users have lost their initial fascination and moved on to a variety of other internet quirks. Yet the spirit of ChatRoulette lives on in many other trends. The sort of short-form and randomized interactions that made ChatRoulette such a novelty still live on via platforms like Snapchat and Tinder. While the website itself may have lost its userbase, consumers today still desire many of the same qualities that once made ChatRoulette so successful.


Works Cited

1. Ioffe, Julia. “Roulette Russian.” New Yorker 17 May 2010: n. pag. Web.

2. Kondakov, Yevgeny, and Benjamin Bidder. “17-Year-Old Chatroulette Founder: ‘Mom, Dad, the Site Is Expanding’ – SPIEGEL ONLINE.” Spiegel Online. N.p., n.d. Web. 01 Feb. 2015.

3. Bilton, Nick. “The Surreal World of Chatroulette.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 20 Feb. 2010. Web. 01 Feb. 2015.

4. Gunning, Tom. “Re-Newing Old Technologies: Astonishment, Second Nature, and the Uncanny in Technology from the Previous Turn-of -the-Century.” Rethinking Media Change The Aesthetics of Transition. Cambridge: MIT, 2003. 39-59. Print.

5. Wortham, Jenna. “New Site Unmasks Chatroulette Players.” The New York Times Bits. The New York Times. N.p., 11 Mar. 2010. Web. 01 Feb. 2015.