ChatRoulette, hall of mirrors

I told myself that I would refrain from posting today, having perhaps posted too much last week. But sometimes a post simply gets stuck, and like a ditty on spin cycle, begins writing itself. There’s naught then to do but wring the thing out.

Alongside buzz on Buzz last week there was also the much less polished but in ways more magnetic attraction of tiny video phenom ChatRoulette. There’s little to say about the service itself, for it’s really just a couple webcam windows on a page. But it occurred to me this morning that in some ways ChatRoulette is a good illustration of a social interface principle I’ve been repeating for a couple years.

I like to say that the social interface has three modes: Mirror, Surface, and Window.

The Mirror mode is reflective, and is what is involved in our self-reflection and self-image as constructed or produced online. You can go back to Freud for more on mirroring, or leaf back to the Greeks and the fable of Narcissus. I need say little more, I suspect, on the fact that we get mirroring from our presence and participation online.

The Surface mode corresponds to the surfaces the medium is capable of rendering. All visual media, online included, render content on their surfaces. Films are projected, television is broadcast, print is printed. The interface can handle whatever kind of visual presentation its technologies and designers can muster: applications, images, full-screen video, animations, games, etc. And computer screens are the most flexible of any of our contemporary screens. One reason that this medium presents such an industrial threat to old media.

The Window mode provides for the possibility of seeing others through the screen — either quite literally (meaning, visually!) as in webcams, or by means of text chat. I consider the window mode to be at work in text chat because the user’s focus of attention is another person. The modality of the UI isn’t constrained to what’s on the screen, but includes the user’s interior focus of attention. In either case — seeing another person or thinking about another person — this communicative functionality is enabled by the medium.

These three modes come together brilliantly in ChatRoulette. In fact the simplicity of ChatRoulette makes a good case for the degree to which social interaction design is “off the page” and involves construction and production of socialities.

ChatRoulette is a surface on which both mirror and window are combined. This isn’t in itself unique. What is unique is that your audience is selected at random — hence the roulette. The author’s origin being Russian, roulette here refers to the Russian version, and not the Vegas version, although there’s a “What happens in ChatRoulette stays in ChatRoulette” aspect at work in its appeal.

To further illustrate the point that social interaction design addresses the particular production of sociality, the random selection of audiences, which pairs you up with somebody on a cam, is a button that enacts a socio-logical operation.

This operation creates a sociality of anonymity. Anonymity permits the play of seeing oneself, seeing oneself being seen (face or some other part), performance, intimacy, proximity, and other social effects of a surface that brings these together. And anonymity escapes social normativity of being one among a known audience of peers.

Consider the normative constriction that would immediately take effect if it were hooked up to your twitter followers or social networking friends. There would be much less nudity and self-pleasuring on ChatRoulette. In fact this suggests to me that privacy is not the best concept for understanding social outcomes in social media. For privacy in ChatRoulette is not just a personal or individual right protected by the medium, but is a constraint that enables very public exposure: to wit the fact that some users feel the need to get into and expose their privates.

The intimacy of anonymity on full display on ChatRoulette also demonstrates the normative function at work in social media. Being seen, and knowing by whom, is key to engagement of a normative constraint. Norms of use in ChatRoulette include transgressions of common codes of civility. By means of the absence of a collective or unifying experience (audience of more than two).

A similar kind of behavioral effect occurs when twitter streams are shown on stage during presentations — and differently when the stream is visible to the speaker. The twitter stream that in normal twitter usage is one’s own personal and specifically individual view is now a common view — by virtue of the stream being one stream seen by all. And if it is behind the speaker, it is a public backchannel, and tweets will often reflect the audience’s awareness that their public commentary is literally behind the back of the speaker. This disrupts the normal speaker-audience relationship and, for better or worse, permits new ways of speaking.

Some have remarked on ChatRoulette’s utter simplicity, and asked why it took the internet so long to produce such a thing. ChatRoulette is not new, but its popularity outside the adult web idiom is. And it shows that some of what the medium does and does well, that which compels by means of voyeurism, curiosity, the arbitrary, creating experiences both self-conscious and in ways liberating too, derives from some very simple combinations made possible by the medium’s unique use of mirrors, windows, and surfaces.

Related:
Social media: the attention economy explained

User Competencies of the Social Media User

ChatRoulette, from my perspective by danah boyd

Some Interesting Facts About Chatroulette by Fred Wilson

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  • seanleoryan

    Loved the “Some Interesting Facts” link, and then mapping back to your post!

  • pickme2

    Chatroulette is a Godsend for exhibitionists and voyeurs. Although not what the creator had in mind, it does allow individuals to anonymously play out a fairly common intimate fantasy, with protection, knowing they aren't going to be identified, contacted, touched, or harassed.
    That is critical for women, in particular. And the producer always has control – any disrespect and they're gone. The viewer similarly has control – if s/he doesn't like what s/he sees – move on.
    This iteration will crash and burn, I suspect, but maybe it will be the trailblazer for musicchatroulette, comedychatroulette, petchatroulette and on and on.
    I watched two guys – I'm thinking 14 or 15, one on guitar, one on drums, jamming away on a blues tune and doing a pretty good job of it. It was a gem. Don't know who or where, but it was fun for all three of us.
    Another time, there was a guy and a girl talking across the room in the kitchen and a cat sitting on the floor near the camera. I tried to catch the cat's attention – just its ears moved, when suddenly another cat came flying in from the other room and ran right up to the cam and said, “mew”. I laughed out loud and shortly after, moved on.
    It's easy to click past the wankers and great fun to laugh with the ones that are partying. Again, if you're rude, I'm gone. there's something really special about this phenom.

  • http://www.gravity7.com/blog/media/ gravity7

    Great observations pickme2 — and to the point that privacy protected is not just an ends but a means (to doing things one might only do when privacy is baked into the system).

    To your examples, which are precious, imagine having the option to fix a channel and then hit roulette to add another camera. The user on the other side would have the option to join the three-way. Add and repeat.

    I could see parties in which chatroulette is projected on a wall and a screen full of a couple dozen simulcast parties are all sharing the same realtime “experience.” Games, prizes, dares, rotating story-telling, onscreen tweets, audience votes, ratings, notification requests, party channels — there's hardly a limit to what folks would come up with as ways of blowing out the screen for a bit of collective mirth and mayhem! From hall of mirrors to full-on funhouse! Love it!

  • http://twitter.com/theparallaxview Russell Pearson

    There will be those 'monetizing' it & perhaps we shall then have the shop windows of the Benjamin's Arcade project, or maybe more likely a return to the adult idiom. It is a hall of mirrors though I'm not sure about the depth, this bothers me.

  • http://www.gravity7.com/blog/media/ gravity7

    Well it could go niche, go adult, or even possibly engender a whole breed of co-viewing applications… hard to say based on one site alone, particularly one this simple.

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