Layton: Chatroulette much scarier than its Russian cousin

By Kieran Layton

There are chat rooms, there is iChatting — and then there is Chatroulette.

When I was in… There are chat rooms, there is iChatting — and then there is Chatroulette.

When I was in sixth grade, I had a surprising amount of freedom in terms of Internet privileges. In a long-gone era where the Internet was ruled by AOL and its little yellow man — always trying to outrun the dial tone, and always failing miserably — my mom could barely figure out how to log onto the Internet, let alone set up parental controls.

The exceptions, of course, were the dreaded AOL Chat Rooms. Those text-based breeding grounds for corruption and pedophilia scares were strictly off-limits, and my lack of access only served to pitch my curiosity up to unbearable levels.

I’ve come a long way since that mother-imposed restriction, however, and 10 years and a video camera-equipped iMac later, I have experienced the chat room in all its pervy glory. I was naïve enough to believe random web-based encounters couldn’t get much more skeevy than watching people have either sexually explicit or mean-spirited conversations about absolutely nothing.

I have never been so wrong.

Enter Chatroulette, the latest — and creepiest — phenomenon to hit the Internet since Twitter allowed us to know when celebrities were using the toilet.

Though it was created in November 2009 by 17-year old Russian Andrey Ternovskiy, according to the New York Times online blog, it has only gained popularity in the past few weeks after being featured in a “Good Morning America” segment.

The site works like this: You go to the site, click “start” and a random person will appear live via his webcam, and you appear to them via yours. Creepy enough, yet? Oh, just wait.

If you don’t like your total stranger video encounter, a simple hit of the F9 button will send you on to the next stranger. Just make sure you do it before someone F9’s you — F9-ing is the newest and most utterly ridiculous way to insult someone.

Of course, you could strike up a genuine, deep conversation with someone (very doubtful), but more often than not you’ll end up laughing at the awkwardness of it all. It seems like only mildly creepy, harmless fun — until you come across your first penis, of course.

As can be expected with any social web tool that connects you — visually! — with total strangers, you can expect to find some perverts, and they come fast and frequently on Chatroulette.

In a personal experiment of mine, I decided to endure Chatroulette for five uninterrupted minutes (by myself — I don’t recommend it), cycle through strangers every five seconds and see what would happen.

Out of the 60 webcams I went through, I saw 23 derivations of a penis, someone playing with his penis, and in one case, someone screaming “PENIS” at the top of his microphone-volume lungs. I also saw two very cute girls, a “Jersey Shore” cast member look-alike pounding a beer, a woman holding who I presumed was her infant son and four empty screens of vacant rooms. Seriously, though, 38 percent of my Chatroulette experience was random penis.

The creepiness speaks for itself, and the site obviously presents itself as a severe issue when it comes to minors and what seems like unintended instances of corruption as well as the possibility of indecent exposure. The thing is, by now, you implicitly agree to being exposed to those possibilities when you use the site.

Although I am personally disgusted by the site and will only use it from now on in the company of friends and alcohol, it is undoubtedly a phenomenon. You want proof? Paris Hilton has been on it (as evidenced by her Twitter), and many other users have tweeted about alleged celebrity-Chatroullete encounters.

Is this the new Twitter? The new AOL chatroom? The new Craigslist? The new poster child for Megan’s Law offenders? All of the above?

It’s a little too early to tell, as the site is still riding the bell-curve wave of popularity. Give it a month, an update that filters whether you get the unexpected male nudity and get back to me.

If you do happen to see me on the site, say “Hi.” I promise I won’t F9 you — as long as you have your clothes on.