This paper was first published in POLI #4, a young french review wich offers to understand politics of images in a way directly related to cultural studies. the #4 's table of content was split in 3 parts : "bodies experiencing/facing sports" , " sex & social networks" and interviews, the first one with sociologist A. A. Casillli about online representations of the body, and the last one with B. Ruby RItch about queer cinema.
THis paper was translated from french by Sam Ripault. (thanks for his really high reactivity.)
Between the end of 2009 and the beginning of 2010, a dazzling publicity was made around the website Chatroulette.com. By the summer of 2010, however, it is not yet clear if its future might be that of a reappearance under a new form or a disappearance for good. Over one winter, Chatroulette has been causing a few problems to internet users, especially to those involved in commenting and describing the Web, whether they be journalists, sociologists or medias experts. This is one of these problems we will be discussing here. Chatroulette is a website offering to anyone equipped with a webcam to be audiovisually connected with a stranger. If it remains possible not to activate our own webcam, it is customary to authorize the computer to film us as our interlocutor is himself filmed. The main screen in the interface of Chatroulette is split into two parts of equivalent sizes. On the right half of the screen is a box for typing up messages, looking like an online chat service in which interlocutors would type in turns. The left half of the screen displays two webcam video frames, the interlocutor's at the top, our own at the bottom. The interface of Chatroulette thus allows connected users to simultaneously see, talk and send text messages to each other, displaying something that is very unlikely to be found offline: visualizing the shot, reverse shot and dialogue script at once or, in other words: displaying the documentary representation of the face-to-face we are taking part in.
As its name states, Chatroulette takes effect on a visual surprise, and its originality lies there. The connection with the interlocutor is random: we do not know who he will be and, until first glance at the screen, neither does he. We are discovering the other through the video he is showing of himself, even before any word can be read or typed. The interface assigns a specific use to the F9 key, which is attributed the “next” function that discards an interlocutor and immediately switch to the next video, showing another stranger with whom to engage a discussion. Most of the time, this is actually what a first experience of Chatroulette is made of: we experience the power of others of allowing or discarding our image on their screen, and we usually start with being discarded. Even though it would be easy to, in our turn, hit the “next” button hectically, soon arises the necessity of performing, of displaying an appealing element so as to catch the attention of interlocutors. The more we are pro-posing, the more likely we are to extract from the stroboscopic stream of successive discarded videos1. Then, people will react with imitations or contributions of their own, on Chatroulette, it is catching up or it is not.