One Last Rationalization Post: ChatRoulette

And while I’m on the topic of rationalization and its discontents, I must mention another darling of the zeitgeist — another phenomenon notable for its sharp break from a rationalized narrative: ChatRoulette.

Like reality TV, online communication has become rationalized over the past decade. We used to sign on, unfettered, to loosely categoritzed AOL chatrooms, for no other purpose but to converse with strangers about whatever came to mind.

Within the world of public online discourse, new structures popped up to help us find more quickly and accurately what — or, I should say, whom — we were looking for. Special interest message board sites for new parents, golf enthusiasts, and arthritis sufferers appeared. Surfers created sites for posing questions in deeply nested categories (Yahoo! Answers), while other sites for listing goods to buy and sell staked claim to their own turf (Craigslist, eBay).

For those of us who just wanted to talk, we got new tools to weed out the weirdos and promote interaction with our friends (or friends of friends): from a/s/l, there were Friendster and Facebook; from chatrooms, there were Google docs and groups and waves.

We gave ourselves better tools to find the right people and talk to them about the right things, but in the process we walled our communities in — and walled in ourselves.

That all changed (for the moment, at least) with ChatRoulette, a website that provides each user a complettely unfiltered video chat connection to another, randomly-selected user. One can stay to chat or click through to the next stranger out in the world of the webcams — an unmediated, unrationalized communication landscape. Like an early, almost empty AOL chatroom — with cameras.

Millions of users’ curiosity has been piqued enough to sign onto the site and see what they might find (even though they often find a close-up and uncensored view of some other user’s genitalia), and it’s easy to see why: ChatRoulette breaks down the barriers we’ve spent a decade erecting, and it unmasks us from the usual anonimity of blog comments and user reviews. It takes us from a bureaucratized present to a wild west past.

But, as is natural with all human processes, we may soon find ChatRoulette fall victim to a self-undermining rationalization that we saw befall reality TV. We will be moved to carve it up into interest-based rooms, we will “like” some users and “friend” others, and soon we will be building a city on what is now an empty landscape.

Sam Anderson described this rationalizing impulse in a piece on ChatRoulette in New York Magazine, at once predicting ChatRoulette’s fragmented future and exalting its unbridled present:

I found myself fantasizing about a curated version of ChatRoulette—powered maybe by Google’s massive server farms—that would allow users to set all kinds of filters: age, interest, language, location. One afternoon I might choose to be thrown randomly into a pool of English-speaking thirtysomething non-masturbators who like to read poetry. Another night I might want to talk to Jets fans. Another night I might want to just strip away all the filters and see what happens. The site could even keep stats, like YouTube, so you could see the most popular chatters in any given demographic. I could get very happily addicted to a site like that.

But that site would also lose a lot of what makes ChatRoulette, for now, so weirdly magnetic. If I’d been able to curate my experience, I might never have had what ended up being my favorite interaction: a half-hour chat with a twentysomething, vaguely Kurt Cobain–ish guy in Pittsburgh. We started with the obligatory ganja jokes, but suddenly he turned serious. “Actually,” he typed, “I’m a mystic.” When he offered me a tarot-card reading, I considered clicking “next” in search of more dancing Koreans. I’ve never had a psychic reading—in fact I’ve actively refused them on many occasions—but something about the strangeness of the context made me accept. Although I only vaguely remember the content of the reading itself (I like nature, have been thinking about taking a big trip, etc.), the experience was surprisingly powerful. It felt generous and deep and oddly very human.

Contemplating the filtered, statistically-tracked, rationalized version of ChatRoulette that Anderson fantasizes about  — while considering the losses that would come with an inhibited version of this paragon of inhibition — we realize that, even when we discuss a website built 90 years after his death, Max Weber was right.

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