Chatroulette is a phenomenon that is sweeping the web like countless memes before it. There was the dancing banana animated gif that started the whole thing off, and ever since then we’ve all been elbow deep in memes. But chatroulette is different – it represents a true breakdown and symbolic revolution of the relationship between content producers and consumers.
If that sentence didn’t make much sense, and it very well might not have, let me back up a second and try it another way… Memes are shared ideas that can achieve deep cultural penetration through viral sharing. These ideas are cultural units, and they have value.
Chatroulette is one of the newest memes on the web and in the world, and although the technology behind it is nothing new, it has tapped into the spirit of the new web – specifically, the idea that we are all content producers now, and that the barriers have been lowered to a laughable extent in terms of who is able to create content. Chatroullette is a video chat site that randomly connects two guests to each other from anywhere around the world. It is dominated by young single white men and perverts, but deep within the layers of perversion there is something beautiful and wonderful there. It was all explained extremely well by Casey Neistat in this awesome video (that you may have already seen):
What’s most interesting about chatroulette is the idea of it if you think about it as a television program. Don’t think about this as a web site, nor as another goofy web meme, but instead as a symbolic step forward in terms of the modern paradigm of entertainment and content production. When web pundits talk about the democratization of content production they are usually spitting out the word YouTube faster than a teenage girl can scream at a sexy vampire, and YouTube is held up as an example that the masses can create social media that the masses want to watch. But YouTube is still very much a one-way street.
Sure… there are comments and video replies and liking and rating and all kinds of social actions around viewing a video, but when it gets right down to it, YouTube users are still just viewing a video.
Chatroulette has highlighted this because it presents the opportunity for something new. The chance to truly interact with your tv show. The chance to pre-emptively and proactively change the course of what comes through your screen by yelling at the creator of your content directly. Chatroulette is an invitation to take the reins; to jumble the ideas of who is producing content and who is consuming and trade those mantles back and forth in real time.
But there’s just one problem. Most people haven’t realized they can take that mantle yet, or aren’t ready for it, or simply don’t want it. Check out the videos from this Mashable post about chatroulette metavideos (videos about chatroulette videos). What you will see over and over again is that the person creating the video has come to the chatroulette session ready to produce something, and I think ready to ‘play’ in a social sense, but that nearly all of the ‘strangers’ they encounter still view themselves as consumers. I.e. they see something interesting come up on the screen and they wait to see what will happen rather than choosing to make something happen – choosing to become the producers and take the reins.
Granted, these people have come to the site expecting a chat experience; expecting to see a person and then type “hi” or “a/s/l” just like in the good ol’ days of the chatroom. But those days are over… or at least boring. It is entirely possible that the urge to “create,” the artistic urge, is something that is hard to learn quickly. Maybe there will always be predisposed producers and predisposed consumers, and predisposed critics I suppose. However, I hope that this is at least partially also an environmental effect of generations of training to sit and watch (or listen in even earlier times), and that we are in the process of training ourselves to break the fifth wall of web content production.
The fifth wall – aside from implying that we live in some weird pentagonal room – represents the move to not just break the wall between the presenter and the audience that was known as the fourth wall, but to go even further and break that barrier again from the other direction. When David Letterman started breaking the fourth wall by throwing pencils and notecards at the camera (for some reason), he wasn’t inviting the audience to run the rest of his show. No – that wasn’t feasible, and he probably wouldn’t have liked that anyway. He was simply reminding the audience that he knew they were watching, and that the television wasn’t a magic box in which he lived.
Breaking the fifth wall is enabled by the web because the other person on chatroulette has no more control over the experience than you do. You are equal partners. The fact that most of them are either holding their penises or doing nothing is a boring choice for them to make as potential producers. Wearing a Stormtrooper helmet or telling people to dance was an interesting choice, and created fodder for the interesting videos highlighted in that Mashable article (link above). But it is still rare to see two interesting choices collide. I hope that is the future; more interesting collisions. That is why I have a tender little space in my heart for chatroulette – for speeding up the collisions.
This post was originally published at The Faster Times