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ChatRoulette: Heads up, parents!

“If I were still an unpopular 12-year-old, my first ChatRoulette session might have crushed me for a year instead of just an hour,” writes Sam Anderson in New York magazine in the mildest possible description of a site that Brad Stone of the New York Times just discovered was created by a 17-year-old in Moscow. It’s a video site that “brings you face-to-face, via webcam, with an endless stream of random strangers all over the world,” Anderson writes. Comments from email correspondents of mine confirm what he writes that about 10% of the videos that stream past are of naked males not just sitting in front of their Webcams. Stone writes, “Parents, keep your children far, far away.” Anderson adds, “There’s no way to manage the experience…. It’s the Wild West: a stupid, profound, thrilling, disgusting, totally lawless boom” with a powerful curiosity factor. And there are serious privacy issues, he adds. Because once you click “Play” on the home page, your computer’s Webcam is activated, and you are among those streaming across other ChatRoulette players’ screens, with any one of them able to grab a shot of your face and whatever else is within the frame of your Webcam.

Another heads-up: ChatRoulette’s not only going viral (300 users in December, 10,000 by end of January, now 20,000 any given night), it’s a group thing (hopefully not the new “Truth or Dare” or “Spin the Bottle”). When a friend came over to experience it with him, Anderson reports “the experience was different … easier to laugh off. We ended up staying on, talking and dancing, connecting and disconnecting, for four hours.” As voyeuristic as it might’ve felt, it wasn’t all “shock porn,” he writes. “We chatted with Pratt students in Bed-Stuy, with a man inexplicably sitting on his toilet, with a kid waving a gun and a knife, and with a guy who went to my wife’s old high school in California. We saw Chinese kids in computer cafés and English kids drinking beer…. We talked for half an hour with a 28-year-old tech writer from San Francisco.” And another email correspondent of mine just heard over the weekend that ChatRoulette is being played by “some of our middle schoolers in [the US state of] Georgia.” There may shortly be a spike in Web-filtering sales!

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