Try to take stock of the 2010s in social media and you might begin to feel a sense of dread. This was the decade of mistrust and manipulation, when platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube became synonymous with hijacking democratic elections, promoting ethnic cleansing, and creating “digital voodoo dolls” from our data. Mark Zuckerberg started the decade as Time’s “Person of the Year,” and ended it with several trips to testify before Congress. Twitter became an amplifier for a president who would end the decade impeached. Young people turned themselves into grocery stores on Instagram, and an egg became the most popular account online.
When the decade began, this new world was already forming, the plot already in motion. But for a brief moment, as 2009 turned into 2010, we had a glimpse of what a different social web might look like. That moment was Chatroulette.
Forget, for a moment, everything that’s happened and transport yourself back to 2009, Moscow, in the childhood bedroom of a young coder named Andrey Ternovskiy. The 17-year-old had just spent the summer working in a local souvenir shop, talking to tourists from all around the world. It inspired him to recreate the experience—the series of chance, fleeting, human encounters—online. The conceit was this: You’d be paired with a conversational partner at random for a video chat via webcam. (There was a text-based chat box, too.) When a conversation reached its limit, you could simply hit “next” to talk to someone new. And you could repeat that cycle for, seemingly, the rest of time. Later, when the site became an international craze with over 30 million users, Ternovskiy would describe Chatroulette as “one hundred percent my window into the world.”
I was one of the early users to try Chatroulette, not long after it launched in November 2009. Ternovskiy and I are the same age, and though we grew up some 6,000 miles apart, we shared an appetite for something bigger than what we had. High school was small and insular, but online, the world was vast and open. In a time when Craigslist was for creeps and AIM was for your friends, Chatroulette held space for the bigness of the internet. There were millions of people out there, just waiting to meet you. All you had to do was click.
People had, of course, been talking to strangers online for a long time by that point. The earliest days of Bulletin Board Systems and Internet Relay Chat made it possible to call up any old person, usually based on a similar interest. Similarly, randomness had been the foundational idea of sites like StumbleUpon, created in 2001. One minute you’d be on a website about exotic cat breeds, and just a click later, a list of the best vacation destinations in Italy. But by 2009, we were already moving away from those random, anonymous experiences and toward the new social web. Everyone my age had a MySpace or, increasingly, a Facebook. We used real names, not screen names; we had algorithms and filters to find who, or what, we were looking for. Instagram would come out a year later, and our parents were already squeamish about us posting photos online. (At the time, my biggest fear was that a college admissions officer might discover my Facebook profile.)
Chatroulette arrived at the perfect moment: It was spring break for the open internet, the last gasp of something wild and free. (Omegel, another random video chat app, also launched in 2009; its founder was also a teenager.) The chance encounters could be bizarre, unexpected, and utterly delightful. There was no permanence, no popularity contests, no viral sensations—it was just you and your conversation partner (or partners; it was not uncommon to go spelunking through the site with an entourage).
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